During the Olympic Games, most of us were holding thumbs for our favourite competitors. And, quite appropriately so since the thumb gestures of spectators in the stadiums of ancient Rome were a matter of life and death for the gladiators. But while it is also National Women’s Month, the “rule of thumb” reminds us of the considerable battle women have had to escape from being “under the thumb” of men.
It is widely accepted that the thumbs-up gesture, as a sign of approval, and thumbs-down, for disapproval, originates from the gladiatorial contests of ancient Rome. If the majority of the crowd gave the losing fighter the thumbs-up he was allowed by the emperor to live. If it went the other way he was killed.
This explanation for the origin of the 'rule of thumb' is, however, not uncontested. As an article
by Desmond Morris and others informs us, there is even some serious scholarly debate on the subject.
The belief that the thumbs-up and thumbs-down gestures indicated approval and disapproval is said to have entered the public consciousness with Jean-Léon Gérôme's painting Pollice Verso in 1872. The thumbs-down gestures of the crowd in Gérôme's popular picture were interpreted by the 19th century public as signs of disapproval. Actually, the artist probably never intended that, as pollice verso just means ‘turned thumb’.
Some scholars argue that this interpretation resulted from an incorrect translation of ancient Latin text by Philemon Holland in 1601. Whatever the case, the interpretation of this gesture stuck and there is no doubt about its modern meaning.
Both the physical act of folding your thumbs in the palms of your hand, and the expression “I will hold thumbs for you” as either a superstition or for wishing good luck is, by all indications, typically South African. The expression is found in English and Afrikaans.
According to Anton F. Prinsloo, in his book on Afrikaans expressions and their origins (Spreekwoorde en waar hulle vandaan kom), it also originates from the gladiator contests in ancient Rome. If the losing gladiator’s life was to be spared, the emperor kept his thumb folded in his palm. If he stuck his thumb out the gladiator was killed.
In most of the rest of the English-speaking world, and by some in South Africa, the equivalent expression is to ‘keep our fingers crossed’. The ‘holding thumbs’ expression came to South Africa via Dutch and German.
While this particular South Africanism might just pass other English-speakers by, another gesture involving the thumb, which is common to both South Africans and Americans could lead to some serious misunderstanding.
In South Africa the gesture of holding the thumb between the middle and index finger while waving the fist at someone, is a rude gesture along the same line as raising the middle finger. In America, however, you would be wishing someone good luck.
When Elvis Presley, in the late 1950s or early 1960s, sang his song “Good-luck Charm” he had in mind a necklace with such a fist hanging as a charm around a girl's neck.
The ultimate 'rule of thumb'
The modern expression 'rule of thumb' -- indicating a general principle with broad application that is not intended to be strictly accurate but easy to follow -- has a less than charming origin.
Judge Sir Francis Buller is reported to have made a legal ruling in 1872 that under English law a man was allowed to beat his wife with a stick so long as it was no thicker than his thumb.
Some scholars dispute the fact that judge Buller ever made such a judgement.
According to one source, "Although it is certainly the case that, while British common law once held that it was legal for a man to chastise his wife in moderation (whatever that meant), the 'rule of thumb' has never been the law in England,”
No alternative is offered, however, bar the general observation that the thumb is often used to make an estimated measurement of many things. One such example dates back to a book published
in 1640, which included the following rhyme:
If Hercules' tall stature might be guess'd
But by his thumb, the index of the rest,
In due proportion, the best rule that I
Would chuse, to measure Venus' beauty by,
Should be her leg and foot:
Having watched some of the women’s volley ball at the Olympics on television, unlike some of the thumb rules, sadly I have to report that the ‘leg rule’ never quite stuck.