One of my favourite pastimes is exploring the origins and meanings of common English words and expressions.
Our language is such a hodge-podge (dare one say “hotchpotch”?) of thefts, borrowings and adaptations from others, that an etymologist can go haring down many a rabbit hole trying to plumb the depths of a simple phrase.
English is a glorious mess. It’s a wonder anyone can actually speak it.
The other day, I took a notion to write something about one of my former favourite pastimes: hitchhiking. But where to start? With the hitch, or the hike? Either one could steer me onto a variety of trails and highways.
Should I hitch my wagon to a star, in hopes that everything will go off without a hitch? Or, should I hitch (or hike) up my mental trousers and take a hike?
To resolve the dilemma, I opted for one of my standard writing techniques: avoidance. Maybe I should muse about something simple, such as thumbing a lift.
Not lifting a thumb, mind you. That’s something else altogether.
Yes, I’ll give that idea a thumbs-up. That is a universal sign of approval, yes? Well, not exactly. In Australia, Greece, the Middle East and a few other places, it’s as rude a gesture as flipping a middle finger.
Incidentally, bloodthirsty Roman crowds did not give a victorious gladiator the thumbs-up (meaning he should spare his opponent) or a thumbs-down (meaning to go ahead and slay him).
What those judgmental spectators actually did was give either a “pollice verso” (turned thumb, meaning go ahead and do the nasty), or a “pollice compresso” (with thumb hidden in the fist, meaning the victor should sheath his sword).
Turns out film directors (and movie critics) have been wrong about thumb etiquette all along.
And what about that infamous British law commonly known as the “rule of thumb”? Apparently, poor old Sir Francis Buller has been getting a bad rap since 1782.
Except for one satirical cartoon, there is no evidence that Judge Buller ever ruled that a man could beat his wife as long as he used a stick no thicker than his thumb.
There is (or was) a “rule of thumb” in the tailoring trade, however. It stated that the circumference of the thumb was half that of the wrist; the circumference of the wrist half that of the neck, and the circumference of the neck half that of the waist.
It may work as a rough guideline, but anatomists might thumb their noses at it.
Speaking of anatomy, is the genetic characteristic known as “hitchhiker’s thumb” any real help when one is trying to hitch a ride?
I’ll have to get back to you on that one.