One can live a full, long life without thumbs, but it is/would be mighty inconvenient! Thumbs are hard working digits.  They are needed for power moves (lifting and moving weight), for fine motor control of all sorts, and for numerous activities in between. Ancient Romans thought the thumb held sway over the other fingers; in fact, the Latin word for thumb, pollex, may be a derivative of the word for power, pollet. Consider the following common activities:

The kalimba is played almost entirely with the thumbs.
  • Write with a pen or pencil
  • Put on jewelry
  • Paint
  • Put on socks
  • Open a door with a doorknob
  • Brush/comb hair
  • Button a shirt or blouse
  • Play basketball, baseball, most other ball games
  • Tie a bow/shoe lace
  • Tie off a balloon
  • Play most musical instruments
  • Tie a knot
Most important of all – making thumbprint cookies!
  • Drink from glass, cup, or mug
  • Seal a zip-lock bag
  • Pull up a zipper
  • Pick up something small from a flat surface
  • Snap or un-snap a closure
  • Manipulate chopsticks
  • Eat with a fork, spoon, or knife
  • Wield a toothbrush
  • Open jars/bottles
  • Use a needle and thread
  • Etc., etc., etc.

Clearly, thumbs are hard working digits. (You heard it here first!)

But wait! There’s more!

Thumbs for Identification

Finger and Thumb Prints of Al Capone
  • Everything that applies to fingerprints applies to thumbs. Your prints are set three months before birth.
  • They are virtually unique. No two are the identical, not for the two thumbs of the same person and not for identical twins.
  • They are durable over one’s lifetime, making them useful as long-term identifiers of criminals and dead bodies. 
    • Any injury that goes beneath the outer layers of the skin can affect the thumbprint.
    • Thumbprints can be temporarily scarred by cuts, abrasion, acid, or certain skin diseases, but thumbprints lost this way will grow back within a month.
  • With age, the skin on your thumbs is less elastic and the ridges thicker.
  • Voters mark ballots with a thumbprint in many countries where large portions of the population don’t read
  • A thumbprint can be used as a legal signature if the print is done in the presence of a Notary Public and is witnessed by two people who are not affected by the document, who also sign the document.
  • The Registration Act of 1908 in the Indian state of Maharashtra specified a print of the left thumb.
  • By custom and convention, the left thumb mark of a man and the right thumb print of a woman are used
  • Sometimes thumbs alone can be used to access print-controlled locks
    • i.e., sorting those who are allowed access from those who are not.

Thumbs for Communication 

Professor Albert Mehrabian has estimated that, when a speaker’s verbal and nonverbal communication don’t match, listeners only get a fraction of their information from words. The rest is comprised of paralanguage (tone, speed, “delivery”) and body language: posture, facial expressions, proximity, touch, and gestures.  So what are your thumbs saying? It depends on where you are, what you’re doing—and when!

Thumbs Up

Wikipedia has an extensive discussion of the possible origins of the gesture (pre-flight checks, archers testing bow strength, seal business transactions, etc.). Regardless of origin, the meanings are numerous. Here is a not-exhaustive list.

  • In the U.S., this is generally positive, indicating success, good wishes, agreement, etc.  
  • In the Middle East, it means “up your butt.” Many, perhaps most, Latin Americans consider it offensive, as do people in West Africa, Greece, Russia, Sardinia, southern Italy, Australia, the Philippines, and many Islamic nations. 
  • In Germany and parts of Japan, it simply means the number one. 
  • The hitchhiker’s thumb: thumb out, fingers curled, arm out meaning I want a lift. 
  • A similar gesture made toward a door means get out of here.
  • When scuba diving, thumbs up means ascend.
  • Two thumbs up means jump ball in basketball.
  • In baseball, an umpire’s thumb over the shoulder signals an out.
The A-OK
Scuba diver signaling that all equipment works during pre-dive checks

Touching the index finger to the thumb while remaining fingers remain upright.

  • It’s considered a positive gesture, meaning all okay here in the U.S.
  • The same gesture means all is well in scuba diving 
  • In Brazil, it’s like giving someone the finger
  • It’s vulgar in Greece and Turkey and implies that the person receiving the sign is gay
  • It’s the evil eye in some Middle Eastern countries
Thumbing One’s Nose
Joseph Stalin, 1940

Called “cocking a snook” in Britain, thumb your nose by touching your thumb to the tip of your nose, with fingers curled or open and wiggling. This is often accompanied by jeering, crossing eyes, or sticking out the tongue. It is a gesture of ridicule in most of the world.

Eric Ambler in 1938 wrote, “The Rome–Berlin axis…cocked the biggest snook yet at the League of Nations idea” in Cause for Alarm.

Experts (5 year old neighbors) agree that this gesture is most effective when accompanied by chanting, “na-na na-na na-na!”

The Cutis

Put the tip of your thumb in to your lips while the rest of the fingers are straight up (or sometimes curled). Then the the thumb is flicked out while vocalizing “Cutta!” (Screw you!). It’s an insult to the target and to the target’s entire family. The cutis is used mostly in India and Pakistan.

In American Sign Language, this gesture means “mom.”

Bite One’s Thumb

This gesture was famously used by Shakespeare as one of the insults used by Montagues and Capulets in Romeo and Juliet. Italians used the gesture as an insult for centuries before Shakespeare came around. There is some evidence that it had spread to England by the time of Romeo and Juliet’s production, but it was uncommon enough that Shakespeare included an explanation for why it was an insult.

The Fig

Hand is curled into  a loose fist with the tip of the thumb sticking out between the index and middle fingers. 

  • In the U.S., Canada, and Australia, this gesture is part of game often played with babies.
  • In American Sign Language, this is the gesture used for the letter T. 
  • It is insulting in Turkey, Indonesia, Italy, India, and some other Asian countries. 
  • In Ancient Rome, the head of the family would make this sign to fend off evil spirits during the Lemuria Festival.

In the Roman Arena

Pollice Verso by French painter Jean-Léon Gérôme (1872)

Myth: In Ancient Rome, a thumbs-down meant the gladiator should die. Wrong! This painting by Jean-Léon Gérôme (above) is most likely responsible for the popularity of this myth. The title means “Turned Thumbs,” a reference to the gesture being made by the crowd.

The Médaillon de Cavillargues (c 200AD) shows a gladiator referee gesturing with a sideways thumb.

Fact: Gladiator referees used a variety of gestures and signs to communicate with crowds, and gladiators didn’t often fight to the death. (Training a gladiator was incredibly expensive, and all the trainers, investors, sponsors, coordinators, etc. would have been quite upset if all their hard work was left to bleed out on the Coliseum sand. Death from injury, sepsis, or heatstroke was more common.)

Anthony Corbeill, a Latin professor at UVA, has written a whole book on ancient body language: Nature Embodied: Gesture in Ancient Rome. Hand gestures evolved and changed in meaning throughout the centuries and from place to place, but here are some common Coliseum gestures:

  • Pollices premere (thumb up) – raising weapons, attack
  • Pollices verso (turned thumb) – weapons down, submit, begin
    • Historians aren’t sure whether this meant turned to the side or turned down
  • Pollice compresso (pressed thumb) – sheathe weapons, bout over, pause
    • This might mean the thumb pressing the other fingers or being pressed by the other fingers
  • Waving handkerchiefs or shouting

Sign Language

Sign language interpreters from different countries during a project meeting with Spreadthesign
ASL “water”

Sign language: a system of communication using visual gestures and signs, typically used by/with deaf people. There are more than 300 different sign languages in use around the world. Almost all of them are highly dependent on thumbs! 

Increasingly, educators have adapted sign languages for use by very young children and non-verbal students. Many sign languages can be modified to suit the physical needs of the user, including creating two-handed signs with one hand, adjusting the size or speed of a movement, or changing which fingers are moved. Sometimes, this even includes not using the thumbs at all!

Bottom line: thumbs are incredibly important and deserve more attention and appreciation that they usually are granted!


Finger Hands made by Archie McPhee

The first thought to come to mind is probably American Sign Language. Important as it is, that isn’t a big part of this blog, primarily because I know next to nothing about it. For information from experts in Sign Language and Deaf culture, check out these other sources:

Instead, I am going to take a look at the hand language that people pick up without really thinking about it. In spite of humans developing amazing verbal language, we still engage our hands to enhance communication of our emotions, thoughts, and meaning. Think of how hands are used by effective speakers (e.g., Hitler), magicians, and orchestra conductors, for example.

Talking Hands are a Gift for Writers! 

Use hands to show rather than tell how a person is feeling, whether anxious, scared, frustrated, or confident. Mismatching words and hand movements are invaluable for indicating dishonesty, lies, or at the least a situation undermining trust.

Hand slang is culture-bound. By hand slang, I mean gestures that convey a specific meaning in a particular culture. For example, in the United States, the following gestures are generally understood:

  • Rubbing palms together: anticipation, positive expectation; rubbing faster is more positive
  • Tubbing thumb against index finger or fingers: financial gain, expectation
  • Fist pump: victory, win
  • Fist bump: congratulations, casual greeting
  • Closed fist, middle finger extended: f*ck you, up yours
  • Closed fist, index and middle fingers extended: peace, accent for photos
  • Thumb to nose, fingers waggling: mocking, distain
  • Thumbs to ears, tongue sticking out: a childish gesture of disdain or insult
  • Hand over heart: sincerity, believe me
  • Right hand raised, elbow bent: believe me, I swear; stop
  • Clenched fist: anger, irritation, or tension
  • Crooking the index finger: come here, sometimes used flirtatiously 

Hand slang often changes in meaning over time, even within the same culture:

  • Historically, thumbs down means death; now, disapproval or disagreement
  • Thumb up: historically, let the combatant live; now, okay, good job 
  • Index finger curled to touch the thumb: historically, this meant “okay”; recently, this gesture has become a symbol that the wielder is a white supremacist.

Writers note: The same gesture often has different meanings in different cultures. Use the confusion your advantage when there is a cross-cultural element to your story. Touching the index finger to the thumb means different things all over the world:

  • You’re a zero – France and Belgium
  • Money – Japan
  • @sshole – southern Italy
  • Sexual invitation – Greece and Turkey

President Nixon caused a scandal in Brazil when he deplaned with both hands overhead in the American peace sign, which in Brazil is equivalent to flipping someone the bird.

Gendered Gestures

By middle school/early adolescence, gender differences in the use of gestures emerge. Some gestures are used equally by both males and females.

  • Thumbs protruding from pockets: dominance and self-assuredness
  • Gesturing/pointing to someone with the thumb: dismissive, disrespectful, ridiculing
    • Women more likely to use this gesture with people they dislike
  • Males
    • Give “the finger” 
    • Give the finger with an upward arm more to convey “up yours”
    • Pound the table
    • Pound a fist into the opposite hand
    • Display clenched fists
    • Use expansive, powerful hand movements
    • Use adaptors less frequently (see below)
    • Holding jacket lapel with thumbs exposed: dominant and self-assuredness
  • Females
    • Put their hands in their laps or on their hips
    • Tap their hands on the table or on their leg
    • Pull in their gestures as if their elbows are attached to their waists
    • Use more “bonding” gestures, such as hands and arms outstretched toward another person
    • Be more expressive, more animated in their use of gestures
    • Use low steepled finger position (see below)
    • Place one hand over the other and rest her chin on top, drawing attention to the face

Writers portraying a person of the other sex heed this: getting body language wrong—in this case hand talk—makes your character come across as unreal or unbelievable.

Professional Gestures

Several professions require conveying information through hand gestures that fall outside the structure of a formalized language. People in these professions tend to remain cognizant of their hand movements and position even when not working. Some make an effort to minimize or completely still their hands, while others are especially prone to enhance their communication with conscious hand gestures.

  • Musical conductors often subconsciously cue other speakers even when off the stage. Conductors are trained to use their left and right hands simultaneously to make completely independent movements, signalling the tempo and style with the right hand and controlling musicians’ entrances and overall tone with the left.
  • Classical dance traditions in India, Bali, Japan, and many other regions include a “vocabulary” of hand signs. These signs are not a formalized language like ASL, but they are used in combination with the music to create a message or tell a story physically embodied by the movements of the entire body.
  • Romani dancers have a much less formal dance style, and it is common for individual dancers or families to create or adjust their own lexicon of hand movements. These gestures often reflect activities in daily life. Unlike Indian or Balinese dancers, Romani dancers’ footwork and figures tends to be relatively simple.
  • Ballet, and many offshoot lyrical dance styles, uses hand gestures either to extend the movement of their arms or to communicate story elements via pantomime.

Gestures as Adaptors

Adaptors are almost always learned in childhood, typically involving touching oneself, for the purpose of self-soothing. Often people exhibit only one such behavior/habit, but an individual could have multiples. For example, pulling on an ear, tapping toes, smoothing eyebrows, touching nose or chin, bouncing a knee, twisting fingers, picking at one’s nails, twirling hair, and brushing hair back. Adaptors can include adjusting clothing (e.g., pulling on/straightening a tie), fiddling with jewelry, pocket change, or a pencil, and drumming one’s fingers. 

Important things about using/exhibiting adaptors:

  • They attract attention, detracting from the verbal communication and/or annoying others
  • They are often interpreted as signs of anxiety
  • They make the exhibitor less persuasive 

Writers note: There are lots of ways to show anxiety or nervousness without telling the reader that is what is being felt.

What the hands say is often louder than words. Research by Joe Navarro’s and others supports this conclusion. 

  • When people hide their hands (for example, under a table or desk) they are perceived as less open and less honest.
  • How we touch someone reveals how we feel about them: full touch with the palm is warm and affectionate; touching with fingertips shows less affection.
  • When people feel comfortable and strong, fingers are spread out more, making hands more territorial.
  • When feeling insecure, people’s fingers are closer, sometimes thumbs tucked into palms.
  • Steepled fingers: when held high, feeling confident; low steepled fingers signal the person is listening, attending.
  • When feeling confident, thumbs rise more as the person speaks, especially if fingers are intertwined.
  • Two gestures express extreme stress: the Teepee Finger rub (palms facing, fingers interlaced and held stiff or rubbed slowly back and forth; and fingers intertwined palms facing up.
  • When adults’ words don’t match their gestures they are seen as less trustworthy.
  • Hands clenched together: scared, nervous, or holding back a strong negative emotion.

Position is important: in front of face, on desk or lap, in front of genitals when standing; in general, the higher the clenched fists, the stronger the negative emotion.

  • Hand behind the back, one hand gripped in the other: superiority and confidence.
  • Arms back, one hand gripping wrist: holding back frustration, a gesture of self-control. 

Get a grip on yourself?—Arms back, one hand gripping the other arm: the higher up the hand grips the opposite arm, the more frustrated or angry the person is likely to be.

Writers be aware: mismatching words and hand movements is a powerful tool.

Pay attention to handshakes. Because a handshake is often the first touch between people, it shapes first impressions.

  • No one likes vice-like grips, which convey aggressiveness, perhaps an attempt to intimidate or establish dominance.
  • A limp handshake does not denote femininity, but rather weakness.
  • Body language experts suggest mirroring the other person’s handshake, with good eye contact.
  • NB: In some cultures a hug or cheek-kissing might be more in order.

Talking With One’s Hands Isn’t a Bad Thing

  • An analysis of TED talks found that the most popular speakers used nearly twice as many hand gestures as the least popular speakers.
  • People who talk with their hands tend to be viewed as warm, agreeable and energetic.
  • People who use their hands less are seen as logical, cold and analytical.
  • According to Kinsey Gorman, “Gesturing can help people form clearer thoughts, speak in tighter sentences, and use more declarative language.”
  • Hand gestures often tell others the strength of our emotions and motivations.
  • Young children (age 5 or 6) using more hand gestures predicts a strong vocabulary as well ask sills related to sentence structure and storytelling later.

Bottom line for writers: Hand movements and gestures allow you to convey so much information to your readers:

  • Show not tell emotions and attitudes
  • Add depth to your character
  • Add power to your dialogue
  • Break up big chunks of narrative or dialogue in meaningful ways