Turning the handle on a pencil sharpener. Shifting gears on a car. Taking a photo.

They're all taken for granted - if you're right-handed. ut pity the left-hander. Left-handed people have spent centuries learning to do things "backwards" in a right-handed world.

Left-handers can recite a litany of inconvenience: school desks, scissors, golf clubs, pots that pour the wrong way. They endure phrases such as "left-handed compliment" and "out in left field." And occasionally they're reminded that the word "sinister" is derived from the Latin for "left."

"Sometimes I think we're the last unrecognized minority," says an executive at the National Eduction Association.

But left-handers are growing number - and they're uniting.

Today is International Left-Handers Day. So says Left Handers International, a Topeka, Kan.-based group that claims a membership of 5,000 left-handers (and probably a few right-handed lefty sympathizers). It held its first convention this weekend in Kansas City, Mo.

The Left-Handers International "Bill of Lefts," Article 10, says this day is for "championing the freedoms, worth and dignity of left-handedness throughout the world."

So let us champion:

When Alexander the Great raised his sword against the Greeks or the Persians, he did it with his left hand....

Likewise Charlemagne, when he terrorized the Moors....

When Babe Ruth smacked his 714th (and all the others) out of the ballpark, he was batting left-handed....

And when Harry Truman tossed out the first ball of the season, it was left-handed....

Rocky smote Apollo Creed with his potent left....

Ben Franklin signed the Declaration of Independence left-handed....

Pablo Picasso plunged into cubism left-handed....

Leonardo da Vinci painted that mysterious smile with his left hand....

And when Prince Charles accedes to the throne, the hand that rules Britain will be His Highness's left.

A Little Lefty History

From primitive times, left-handers haven't had it easy.

The Greek mathematician Pythagoras stated categorically in his Table of Opposites that the right hand went along with the sun, light, good and maleness, while the left hand - bad news for feminists - was all the opposite.

In the Moslem world and among the African Temne, the right had was for eating, greeting and other public functions. To offer the left was an insult; in some cases it was reserved for hygienic purposes.

To the medieval church, the left hand was the hand of Satan - and of Eve. Left-hander Michelangelo portrayed God at the Last Judgment pointing the way to heaven with his right hand and to hell with his left.

To insure obedience, the left hand was put out of commission in a variety of ways: thrust into boiling water, bound up with metal rings that bit into the flesh, or tied up, a practice that continued into the 20th Century in American schools.

Some anthropologists speculate that the preference for the right hand arose in a hunting/warrior society, since it was important to shield the heart with the left hand.

But today, observes anthropologist Graham Pringle of New York University, push-button technology, with its emphasis on one finger, makes left- or right-handedness less obvious.

"People have this absolute compulsion to use their preferred hand," he says, "but what's really strange is the ease with which they can learn to use the other if they have to.

"It really doesn't make a scrap of difference. But how many people would think of shaking hands left-handed".

Famous Quotes Department

"When thou doest alms," St. Mathew warned, "let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth."

Paul Simon in his "A Desultory Philippic:" "I've been Ayn Randed/Nearly branded/A communist 'cause I'm left-handed.... But that's the hand I use/Well, never mind."

"Left-handers," said southpaw Casey Stengel, "have much more enthusiasm for life. They sleep on the wrong side of the bed, and their heads become stagnant on that side."

Thoms Carlyle, who lost his right hand in an accident at the age of 15, commented grumpily that right-handedness was "the very oldest human institution that exists...indispensable to all human cooperation whatsoever."

Times Are Changing

Julian Jaynes, a Princeton University psychology professor and author of "The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind," tells of a left-hander he encountered while preparing a portion of his book that deals with the hands and the brain.

"His left arm was black and blue up to the time he was 21," says Dr. Janyes. "He's from the south of Italy. His parents beat his hand because it was the devil's hand."

Jack Fincher, author of "Sinister People: The Looking Glass World of the Lef-Hander," recalls having his hand slapped with a ruler until he gave in and changed.

Betty M. Hora, owner of the Lefty Shop in Whittier, Calif., says that many years ago her grandmother told her she wouldn't be allowed in school if she didn't learn to print with her right hand. And so she learned.

But the practice of changing children's hands in schools began to fade in the 1930s, says University of Chicago psychologist Jerre Levy.

"In 1930," she says, "2 percent of the population wrote with the left hand. By 1946, it was up to 7 1/2 percent. In 1968, 9 percent. By 1972, 12 percent. It's leveling off, and I expect the real number of left-handers will turn out to be about 14 percent."

A University of Michigan study points out that left-handers may not be taking over the world but...7 percent of the men and 6 percent of the women over 40 who were interviewed were lefties, but the percentages jumped to well above 10 percent in the 18-to-39 age group.

"We used to call everybody a deviant who didn't conform," says Dr. Bernard McKenna of the National Education Association. "We just eventually learned better. There was recognition by medical authorities that left-handedness was normal and that tying the hand up in a child often caused stuttering."

Dumb Joke

Did you hear the one about the two hunters?

They were in the woods, see, and they came to this sign that said, "Bear left." So they went home.

Psychologists' Smorgasbord

Left-handers, unlike right-handers, show a variety of types of brain organization, according to scientists.

The brain is divided into two major hemispheres. For right-handers, the left hemisphere controls the functions of the right side of thebody and is where speech and writing abilities are located. The right hemisphere involves spatial relationships, artistic ability, music skills, imagery and intuition.

But left-handers - the spice of life - are a different story. While all normal right-handers have left-hemisphere brain dominance, left-handers may have left hemisphere, right hemisphere or mixed dominance, and this is their special fascination for psychologists.

Tests by psychologist Levy indicate that those left-handers who hook their writing hand above the line have same-side brain control. "What I've found," she says, "is that the inverted writers - the "hookers' - have very weak brain asymmetry and generally have language in the left hemisphere."

A right-hander can only envy weak asymmetry.

Facing West

The word "southpaw," according to H. L. Mencken, was coined by Charles Seymour, who wrote for the Chicago Herald. Seymour used the word in 1891, talking about Chicago's West Side ballpark. Pitchers there faced into the setting sun, so the pitcher's left hand was his "southpaw" - whether he used it or not.

Mencken noted the term in his "The American Language."

Environmental Bulletin

The British are probably right about driving on the left, says Canadian psychologist Michael Corballis. The way it works is this: In the Northern Hemisphere, cyclones move in a counter-clockwise direction. By driving on the right, opposing streams of traffic create a counter clockwise flow in the atmosphere. A 1975 study supported the theory that the frequency of tornadoes in the United States had been influenced by traffic patterns. It may take some getting used to, but...the alternative is to move to Argentina, where the cyclones go clockwise.

How to Succeed in Business

As the number of left-handers increases, left-handed stores and mail-order businesses have sprung up.

The oldest and largest is the Left Hand in New York. Its mostly mail-order products include scissors, tools kitchenware, watches, baseball gloves and T-shirts with the logo "Lefties of the World, Unite."

Lefthanded Compliments, a mail-order business in Bethesda, was started about a year ago by a lefty, Teresa Gonzalez del Solar, after she and her husband saw a left-handed store in California.

"The scissors and the school supplies seem to be the biggest items for people who buy for themselves," she says. "They like the pens, too, that dry instantly so they don't smear when you move your hand over them. And left-handed rulesr, so you can see the line you're drawing. And the reverse notebooks."

More and more expensive items are becoming available in left-handed stores. The Left Hand, for example, says it soon will include in its catalogue high-quality drafting tools for architects and a $300 left-handed Swiss watch.

The World of Lefties

In Japan, Tokyo psychiatrist Soicki Hakozaki found himself coping with such deep-seated prejudice against left-handers that he wrote, "The World of Left-Handers." He reported finding situations in which women feared that their husbands would divorce them for being left-handed.

"Before the war, there was discrimination against left-handers," said an official at the Japanese Embassy. "Children were not trained to use their left hand while eating or wtiting. I used to throw a baseball left-handed, but my grandparents wanted me to throw right-handed.I can throw either way.

"To day, in some local areas discrimination may still remain, but on the whole it seems to be over. There are many left-handers in Japan."

One of the most famous is Sadaharu Oh, world champion home-run hitter.

Lefty Oddments

Oldest left-handed comedian: George Burns....

Best imitation of Jimmy Carter by a left-hander: Dan Ackroyd....

Longest known set of fingernails in the world: Measured Feb. 28, 1977, on the left hand of Marari Mohan Aditya of Calcutta (the nails were 70 1/2 inches in total length and had been growing since 1962)....

The town of Left Hand is in West Virginia, has a population of fewer than 300 and sports its own zip code, 25251....

Most Olympic gold medals: Seven, by Mark Spitz, a lefty....

Most lovable lefty doing Lite beer commercial: Marv Throneberry....

All-lefty pop musical group: Manhattan Transfer....

First vegetarian left-handed basketball player: Bill Walton....

Top lefty political duo: Ford and Rockefeller....

Left-handed scholarship: Juanita College in Huntingdon, Pa., for "deserving" left-handers, endowed by a left-handed couple who met and courted there.... CAPTION: Picture 1, Babe Ruth; Picture 2, Benjamin Franklin; Illustration, "What a coincidence! I'm left-handed, too." by Modell; Copyright (c) 1975, The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.