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What is the origin of the idiom 'to hold thumbs'?

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  • My parents are British/South Africans and still use this today with my siblings and me - and even with their American grandkids. I always confuse my American friends when I use the expression.

    My understanding is that it's a British version of America's "Cross your fingers," which basically means, "Hope that this happens."

    I also assume that the origin comes from the physical act of taking your thumb and placing it in the palm of your hand with the tip of the thumb pointing out from between your middle finger and your index finger (as your fingers are wrapped down in a fist gesture). Since usually this is done in both hands while giving the gesture of "Holding thumbs," the plural is used since you're doing it with both thumbs.

  • A German expression indicating that you are wishing someone well or luck in something is to say you will "press your thumb" for them. It is done with the thumb of one hand only, bending it inside the index finger and pressing on the outer joint of the thumb with the fingers curled around it.

    This expression may also be used in the Netherlands, leading to the South African use of it as discussed above. The expression to "Cross your fingers" is common in the UK and parts of Europe and has been used there for centuries.

  • Both the above contain correct elements: in South Africa, with Afrikaans and English being spoken alongside, one gets many Germanic expression taken into South African English. Thus, the Afrikaans expression "Duim vashou" has been directly translated and you find English-speaking South Africans using "Hold thumbs" instead of "Crossing fingers."

  • "Holding thumbs" must not be confused with the physical act of taking your thumb and placing it in the palm of your hand with the tip of the thumb pointing out from between your middle finger and your index finger. It is known in many countries as the"fig sign" and means very different things in different cultures. It is a very rude gesture in South Africa, Indonesia, Japan, Russia, Serbia and many other countries, similar to raising your middle finger to someone. In some countries it is regarded as a good-luck gesture, but it's best to avoid it entirely unless you know its local usage.
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