Holding Thumbs

Recently I sent two people messages saying I would ‘hold thumbs’ for them. Both people came back asking if the phrase was South African and if it meant the same as ‘crossing fingers’. The short answer is yes, the two phrases mean the same – good luck.

This got me wondering how the term came into being. It’s also used in Dutch – Duim vashou and German ich druecke dir die Daumen and even Czech držet palce. According to Marty 89 the origin of the term is pagan: apparently demons dwelt in thumbs, so holding them in your hand meant they couldn’t do any wrong.  It also seems to be a Polish phrase

I wonder if this has something to do with the phrase my grandmother often used: ‘idle hands are devil’s hands.’

In some traditions, passing a cemetery requires one to hold their thumbs inside their fist to safeguard parents. And there are a whole lot of other things to do if you’re superstitious.

Thumbs feature quite a bit in phrases used by South African English:

  • Twiddle your thumbs – when bored
  • Thumb a lift – put your thumb up when hitch-hiking to ask a car to stop and pick you up. This was used often during the Apatheid years when conscription was in place. Our troepies would often hitch a lift to get home on leave or back to camp (safe ride campaign).
  • Thumbs up – for thanks, well done, good, approval
  • Thumbs down – the opposite of thumbs up.
  • Two thumbs side-ways – a family derivative of thumbs up – but even more so, ie Excellent!
  • All fingers and thumbs – clumsy
  • Under the thumb – be controlled by someone
  • Stick out like a sore thumb – obvious
  • Rule of thumb – accepted practice/way of doing something

The African proverb of you can’t tie a knot without a thumb led to a list of how valuable the thumb is.


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