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The meaning and origin of the expression: Pull your finger out

Pull your finger out

What's the meaning of the phrase 'Pull your finger out'?

Hurry up; make every possible effort.

What's the origin of the phrase 'Pull your finger out'?

Pull your finger outVisitors to the HMS Victory in Portsmouth, UK are likely to be told that "the expression 'pull your finger out' came about as an instruction to 'powder monkeys' (the young lads who loaded cannons on British Navy warships) to remove their finger from the cannon's fuse to allow the cannon to be fired".

This isn't true. Folk etymology is working a double shift here.

Firstly, the so-called explanation has come under the spell of CANOE, the (mythical) Committee to Ascribe a Naval Origin to Everything.

Secondly, a tour guide said it. When it comes to the origin of phrases the safest course is not to touch anything said by a tour guide with a long stick. See this list for examples of typical tour guide tosh:

Tour guides want to find interesting things to say on their tours and often make things up.

The easiest way to test if a suggested phrase origin has anything going for it is to ask "How do you know?". If the answer starts with "I was told that..." or "I've always believed that..." you can be pretty sure the explanation is little more than a plausible guess. And that's what we have here. The 'powder monkey' story might sound plausible but that's as far as it goes.

'Pull out all the stops' began life in the early 20th century in Australia, as soldiers' slang. It was later taken up by the British Army.

The first known use of it in print is in Aussie: The Australian Soldiers’ Magazine, March 1919 :

Tell the bloke who issues the prizes to pull his finger out.

It began to be used in the UK during the Second World War, presumably due to the mixing of Australian and UK forces.

What finger was being referred to and where it was supposed to be pulled out from we can only speculate.

See also: Pull out all the stops

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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