My musings in yesterday's entry reminded me of yet another language incident involving foreign words for "right." In Spanish, the word for "right" (as opposed to "left") is derecho, which like most adjectives changes its ending when modifying a female noun: the right foot is el pie derecho but the right hand is la mano derecha. But derecho can also mean "straight" or "upright"; in fact, there's a metereological phenomenon called a derecho which produces straight-line winds. As with similar words in any language, the meaning must be derived from experience and context.
After studying Spanish for a year in the U.S., in 2003 I went to Puebla, Mexico for a month-long immersion course. I was trying to understand the positions of the two major political parties in Mexico, the PRI and PAN. Intending to ask my teacher which party was more to the right (i.e. conservative), I said something like "¿Cuál partido es más derecho?" She answered that they were the same, which thoroughly confused me. After further conversation, I realized that what I had actually asked was something like "Which party is more upright?", or rather, "Which party is less corrupt?" to which her answer was plausible, if somewhat cynical and depressing. What I should have asked was "¿Cuál partido es más a la derecha?" which is the correct expression for "on the right" or "to the right."
As if this weren't confusing enough, derecho has a third meaning as the noun meaning "right", or "privilege." And here's where the comparison to other languages gets interesting. To have a right (say, against self-incrimination) in Spanish is tener derecho, which is similar to the direction "right" (derecho/a); to have "right" (i.e. to be correct), however, is tener razon (literally, to have "reason"). It's similar in French: "right" meaning "privilege" is droit, just as the direction is droite, and to be correct is avoir raison (again, "to have reason"). In German, to have a right is the same as to be correct, Recht haben, which is similar to the direction, recht. And it's the same in English, whether one has a right or is right or is talking about his right hand.
There must be some etymological explanation for why the Germanic languages associate the three meanings of "right" ("correct", "not left", and "privilege") with the same word, whereas the Romance languages associate "correct" with "reason", but I haven't yet tracked it down.