The Thumb

Don’t thumb your nose at the cultural icon.

I’m bumping around in Charles Cotton’s translation of Montaigne’s Essays when I find the following:

Tacitus reports, that among certain barbarian kings their manner was, when they would make a firm obligation, to join their right hands close to one another, and intertwist their thumbs; and when, by force of straining, the blood it appeared in the ends, they lightly pricked them with some sharp instrument, and mutually sucked them.
Physicians say, that the thumbs are the master fingers of the hand, and that their Latin etymology is derived from “pollere.”[2] The Greeks called them anticheir, as who should say, another hand. And it seems that the Latins also sometimes take it in this sense for the whole hand;

“Sed nec vocibus excitata blandis,
Molli pollice nec rogata, surgit.”

It was at Rome a signification of favour to depress and turn in the thumbs:

“Fautor utroque tuum laudabit pollice ludum:”

and of disfavour to elevate and thrust them outward:

“Converso pollice vulgi,
Quemlibet occidunt populariter.”

The Romans exempted from war all such were maimed in the thumbs, as having no more sufficient strength to hold their weapons. Augustus confiscated the strength of a Roman knight, who had maliciously cut off the thumbs of two young children he had, to excuse them from going into the armies: and before him, the senate, in the time of the Italic war, had condemned Caius Vatienus to perpetual imprisonment, and confiscated all his goods, for having purposely cut off the thumb of his left hand, to exempt himself from that expedition. Some one, I have forgotten who, having won a naval battle, cut off the thumbs of all his vanquished enemies, to render them incapable of fighting and of handling the oar. The Athenians also caused the thumbs of the Aeginatans to be cut off, to deprive them of the superiority in the art of navigation.
In Lacedaemon, pedagogues chastised their scholars by biting their thumb.

I suppose thumbs do play a part in our culture. We give something the thumbs up or thumbs down; we thumb our noses at other things[3]; in a more barbarous age, torturers used thumbscrews. There was also that rather unpleasant scene from The English Patient when Willem Dafoe lost his thumbs; and I recall from an episode of Mad About You, the use of thumb surgery as an excuse not to do something.

Thumb comes from Old English þūma and ultimately from Indo-European *tum– “swell” which no doubt makes it related to tumid, tumour, and tumescent, and probably tumult and tumulus.

The opposable thumb is a handy thing. [Well, if I didn’t have a headache before, I do now. –ed.]


1. In Florio’s translation (sv.), this is the twenty-sixth essay from Book 2.

TACITUS reporteth that amongst certaine barbarous kings, for the confirmation of an inviolable bonde or covenant, their manner was to joyne their right hands close and hard together with enterlacing their thumbs: and when by hard wringing them the blood appeared at their ends, they pricked them with some sharp point, and then mutually entersuckt each one the others. Phisicians say thumbes are the master fingers of the hand, and that their Latine etymologie is derived of Pollere. The Græcians call it anticeir, as a man would say, another hand. And it seemeth the Latines likewise, take them sometimes in this sense, id est, for the whole hand:

Sed nec vocibus excitata blandis,
Molli pollice nec rogata surgit.—MART. 1. xii. Epig. xcix. 8.
It wil not rise, though with sweet words excited,
Nor with the touch of softest thumb invited.

In Rome it was heretofore a signe of favour to wring and kisse the thumbs:

Fautor utroque tuum laudabit pollice ludum—HOR. 1. i. Epist. xviii. 66.
He that applaudes will praise,
With both his thumbs, thy plaies

and of disfavor or disgrace to lift them up and turne them outward.

converso pollice vulgi Quemlibet occidunt populariter.—JUVEN. Sat. iii. 36
When people turne their thumbs away,
They popularly any slay.

Such as were hurt or maymed in their thumbs were by the Romanes dispensed from going to warre, as they who had lost their weapons hold-fast. Augustus did confiscate all the goods of a Roman knight, who through malice had cut off the thumbes of two young children of his, thereby to excuse them from going to warre and before him the Senate in the time of the Italian warres had condemned Caius Vatienus to perpetuall prison, and confiscated all his goods, forsomuch as he had willingly cut off the thumb of his left hand, so to exempt himselfe from the voyage. Some one, whose name I remember not, having gained a great victory by sea, caused all the enemies whom he had vanquished and taken prisoners to have their thumbs cut off, thinking thereby to deprive them of all meanes of fighting, or rowing, or handling their oares. The Athenians likewise caused them to be cut off from them of Ægina, to take from them the preeminence in the art of navigation. In Lacedæmon masters punished their schollers by byting their thumbs.
2. pollere “to be strong; be powerful”. The Latin word for thumb is pollex.

3. I assume that there was probably also a gesture, but it seems to have been swallowed up by history; so, too, the insult of biting your thumb at someone as Sampson does at the start of Romeo and Juliet to provoke a quarrel.

Samp. Nay, as they dare. I will bite my thumb at them; which is disgrace to them, if they bear it.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s