- A surprising number of gestures and practices of past times involved the thumb. The folding of the thumb into the palm of the hand, with the other fingers closed over it, was believed to be a protection against witches, or general evil:Some years ago, children in Northumberland were taught to double the thumb within the hand as a preservative from danger, and especially to repel sorcery. It was the custom also to fold the thumbs of dead persons within the hand for the same purpose ...'. (W. Hutchinson, View of Northumberland (1778), quoted in Lean, 1903: ii. 456)Opie and Tatem give a number of references to this action, commencing with one dated c.1350 and running up through the 19th century, although on the strength of the available information it would seem to have been a mainly north country or Scottish practice. The idea that a part of the body itching signifies a future event is well attested in English lore, and this combined with the protective thumb in the hand presumably explains Shakespeare's lines 'By the pricking of my thumbes, Something wicked this way comes' (Macbeth iv. i). Nineteenth- and 20th-century references to holding or squeezing thumbs are more akin in meaning to the modern crossing fingers for luck.Another Shakespeare quotation, 'I will bite my thumb at them, which is disgrace to them if they bear it' (Romeo and Juliet, i. i) indicates another gesture, meaning a challenge or insult, which is well attested in Britain from the 16th to 18th centuries. Morris equates this with the 'teeth flick' gesture current in many parts of Europe.The thumbs-up gesture, to signify assent or 'OK' is so well accepted that few English people would even question its meaning. The popular, but incorrect, explanation is that it dates from Roman times, when the crowd would signify the fate of a vanquished gladiator by thumbs up or down. What they did in that context was either hide their thumbs in their hand, or extend them, although there are other Latin sources which speak of other thumb gestures. In the absence of the spurious antiquity given the gesture by the Roman connection, all we can be sure of is that it existed in England in the mid-17th century, as the earliest reasonably unambiguous reference to 'thumbs up' in England is found in John Bulwer's Chirologia (1644) 'To hold up the thumbe is the gesture . . . of one shewing his assent or approbation. To hold up both thumbs, is an expression imparting a transcendency of praise' (quoted in Morris, 1979: 191). Another thumb gesture may hold the key to further elucidation. In previous times, a regular method for two people to seal a bargain was for them to wet their thumbs and press them together - summed up by the phrase 'Here's my thumb on it'. This certainly signifies agreement, and Hazlitt (1905: 586-7) provides a reference to the custom in a letter in the Close Rolls of King John, dated 1208, and it continues to be reported until at least the late 19th century, although again most of the references are Scottish.The raised thumb could also be a form of greeting: 'It is still the custom - or was fifty years ago in the North of England - for coachmen whose hands are occupied driving to salute a comrade by raising the thumb'(N&Q 160 (1931), 393).Other thumb lore includes the 17th- and 18th- century custom of widows signifying their status by wearing a thumb-ring (Hazlitt, 1905: 586-7), and in the post-Second World War period, the erect thumb has also become the international sign of the hitch-hiker, although in some parts of southern Europe it is considered an obscene gesture (see Morris, 1979).See also *fingers.■ Opie and Tatem, 1989: 404; Morris, 1979: 186-204; Hazlitt, 1905: 586-7; Chambers, 1878: i. 358-60; N&Q 160 (1931), 190-1, 231, 286, 393.
A Dictionary of English folklore. Jacqueline Simpson & Steve Roud. 2014.
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