- Traditionally, different fingers had different attributes and uses. The forefinger was considered 'poisonous' and therefore should never be used for applying ointment to a cut or bruise; in contrast, the ring finger, especially that of the left hand, was known in the 15th century as 'leche man', i.e. 'doctor', since doctors always used it to stir, taste, and apply their medicines. These ideas were still remembered in 19th-century Somerset: 'The ring-finger, stroked along any sore or wound, will soon heal it. All the other fingers are poisonous, especially the forefinger' (N&Q 1s:7 (1853), 152). Another old idea, still current, is that a vein runs straight from this finger to the heart, and that that is why engagement and wedding *rings are worn there.The little finger, rarely functioning alone for practical purposes, is used in a playful ritual: when two people say the same thing simultaneously, they link little fingers and make a wish. Among children in the 1950s, when two have had an argument they would link little fingers and shake their hands up and down, chanting:Make up, make up, never do it again, If you do, you'll get the cane.Another children's custom, of the 19th century, was for boys to pinch the little finger of girls, and vice versa; if they screamed, it meant they couldn't keep a secret - and as boys pinched harder than girls, it followed that girls couldn't keep secrets (N&Q 5s:6 (1876), 108, 214, 337-8).Finger gestures currently in use include *crossing fingers for luck or to avert bad luck; thumbing one's nose (also called *cocking a snook or 'five finger salute') as mockery, usually among children; thumbs up for approval, or to indicate that all is well; the defiant, sexually insulting *V-sign ('two-finger salute'); the more strongly obscene raising of the middle finger, of American origin. Two gestures known in Elizabethan England were 'the fig', in which the thumb is thrust between clenched fingers as a sexual insult, and 'the horns', made by extending the forefinger and little finger while clenching the rest, as a taunt to a cuckold. Nobody now uses them here, but little pendants showing hands in these positions can be bought as lucky *charms, because in parts of Europe the 'fig' and 'horns' gestures are used not only as insults but to avert the evil eye and bad luck.■ Opie and Tatem, 1989: 149.
A Dictionary of English folklore. Jacqueline Simpson & Steve Roud. 2014.
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