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The meaning and origin of the expression: Butterfingers


What's the meaning of the word 'Butterfingers'?

A name playfully applied to someone who fails to catch a ball or lets something slip from their fingers.

What's the origin of the word 'Butterfingers'?

Charles Dickens - butterfingersIn the week of the bicentenary of Charles Dickens' birth (7th February 1812), I thought it would be nice to include a phrase coined by him. It ought not to be too difficult to find one - after all, Dickens ranks sixth on the 'number of English words coined by an individual author' list. Passing over contenders like 'slow-coach' and 'cloak and dagger' I alighted on 'butterfingers', which several authorities say was invented by Dickens. Not quite a phrase but, as it was coined as the hyphenated 'butter-fingers', it's close enough. Dickens used the term in The Pickwick Papers (more properly called The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club), 1836:

At every bad attempt at a catch, and every failure to stop the ball, he launched his personal displeasure at the head of the devoted individual in such denunciations as 'Ah, ah! - stupid' - 'Now, butter-fingers' - 'Muff' - 'Humbug' - and so forth.

It seemed as though that was all there was to say about 'butterfingers' but, as I usually like to add a little more, I delved further. The British Library's excellent new database of 19th century newspapers turned up a reference to 'butter-fingers' in the Yorkshire newspaper The Leeds Intelligencer dated May 1823. Pre-Pickwick, clearly. Looking closer, it appeared that the writer was quoting from what he called 'a scarce book', The English Housewife. Delving again, I found that the book, written by the English writer Gervase Markham in 1615, scarce as it may have been in 1823, is still available today. Markham's recipe for a good housewife was:

'First, she must be cleanly in body and garments; she must have a quick eye, a curious nose, a perfect taste, and ready ear; she must not be butter-fingered, sweet-toothed, nor faint-hearted - for the first will let everything fall; the second will consume what it should increase; and the last will lose time with too much niceness.

Markham's views aren't quite what would be accepted now, any more than is his remedy for the plague - 'smell a nosegay made of the tasselled end of a ship rope'; but he does at least make it clear that 'butterfingers' was in use in 1615 with the same meaning we have for it today, that is, someone likely to drop things - as if their hands were smeared with butter, like a cook's.

Many of the later examples of 'butterfingers' in print relate to the game of cricket, which was and still is the principal ball-catching game in England. The term is often used as an amiable taunt when someone fails to make an easy catch. As the word spread to other countries, notably America, it was taken into the language of the local catching game, that is, baseball, and 'no-hoper' teams were unkindly given that name. The Salt Lake Tribune reported on such a team in May 1899:

'The Butterfingers will cross bats with the Salt Lake Juniors at Calder's Park Tuesday'.

As for Dickens, he may have missed out on 'butterfingers' but he has many other words and phrases to lay claim to, and he did write some exceedingly good books.

Gary Martin - the author of the website.

By Gary Martin

Gary Martin is a writer and researcher on the origins of phrases and the creator of the Phrase Finder website. Over the past 26 years more than 700 million of his pages have been downloaded by readers. He is one of the most popular and trusted sources of information on phrases and idioms.

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