phrases, sayings, idioms and expressions at

To bite ones thumb

Posted by Bob on May 10, 2002

In Reply to: To bite ones thumb posted by Word Camel on May 08, 2002

: : : : I've used the expression "thumbing your nose at someone" to mean a kind of contempt. When I looked in Phrase Finder for confirmation it didn't seem to be included.
: : : : Any info anyone?
: : : : Thanks, Rosieann

: : : Certainly in the part of London I grew up in in the 1930s and 40s, 'thumbing your nose' was very popular with kids as a form of defiance against almost anyone else - other kids, grown ups (you hoped you weren't indentified while you were running away, which is what you always did if adults were involved!). I don't know its origin but I guess pretty old, possibly centuries. It was almost never used by adults and was regarded as childlike.

: : I'm under a similar impression regarding the above, and believe it to be a now out-moded and almost certainly entirely British childish insulting gesture. To effect it, simply hold your right hand side-on to your face, with fingers extended upwards, place your thumb against the tip of your nose, and then, facing your target, waggle your fingers. God alone knows how it came about.

: I wonder if it's at all related to biting ones thumb as an insult. I found it in Romeo and Juliet

: I will frown as I pass by, and let them take it as they list. [41]

: Nay, as they dare. I will bite my thumb at them, which is disgrace to them if they bear it.

: Do you bite your thumb at us, sir?

: I do bite my thumb, sir.

: Do you bite your thumb at us, sir?

: SAMPSON [Aside to Gregory]
: Is the law of our side if I say ay?

: GREGORY [Aside to Sampson]
: No.

: No, sir, I do not bite my thumb at you, sir, but I bite my thumb, sir. [51] [F]


There are many stories of people, traveling in a distant land, who innocently use a hand gesture that means one thing at home, but considered vulgar and/or insulting in the foreign territory. Cautionary tales are told of the tip-of-thumb-to-tip-of-index-finger gesture with the other three extended, which is a sign of encouragement or approval in the US, but apparently nasty in some quarters. Argentina? Italy? I forget. Same with "thumbs up." But the strangest/saddest story of this kind I ever heard was from a public defender here in Chicago (a p.d., for those unfamiliar with the office, is a lawyer assigned to defend indigent people accused of a crime.) His client was a 14- or 15-year old member of a street gang, who had pulled out a pistol and shot another gang member in a car next to him. Upon learning that the boys were total strangers, the p.d. asked the boy why on earth he had killed the other boy. (A brief note of explanation: Every gang has its own hand gestures, "signs" by which they signal their membership. the ultimate insult is to show the other person's sign upside down, to "throw down your sign.") The boy turned to the p.d. and said, as if belaboring the obvious, "He threw down my sign. What would YOU do?" Q.E.D.

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