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The phrase 'Thumbs up' - meaning and origin.

The meaning and origin of the expression: Thumbs up

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What's the meaning of the phrase 'Thumbs up'?

A sign of acceptance, approval or encouragement, made with closed fingers and the thumb extended upwards.

What's the origin of the phrase 'Thumbs up'?

It is widely known that this gesture originates from the gladiatorial contests of ancient Rome, in which the fate of a losing fighter was decided by gestures from the crowd. Okay, so if it's widely known, why does it need to be included here? Well, as so often with etymology, the truth isn't quite so simple.

Thumbs upFirstly, the thumbs up gesture is misnamed as it is usually performed using only one thumb.

As to the origin, the belief that the 'thumbs-up' and 'thumbs-down' gestures indicated approval and disapproval respectively entered the public consciousness with Jean-Léon Gérôme's 1872 painting 'Pollice Verso' (shown at top of page). The 'thumbs down' gestures of the crowd in Gérôme's popular picture were interpreted by the 19th century public as signs of disapproval.

However, scholars of Roman texts disagree about the meaning of the gestures. The original Latin texts are difficult to interpret. Roman texts, notably by the 2nd century poet Juvenal, are ambiguous. Lines of his have been translated thus:

1. Now they give shows of their own. Thumbs up! Thumbs down! And the killers, spare or slay.

2. To-day they hold shows of their own, and win applause by slaying whomsoever the mob with a turn of the thumb [up for slay, down for spare] bids them slay.

Whatever was actually believed in ancient Rome, the 17th century English writer Philemon Holland believed that thumbs down was a mark of approval. His translation of Pliny's Natural Historie, 1601, which is the earliest reference to thumbs up/down in English, includes:

"To bend or bow downe the thumbes when wee give assent unto a thing, or doe favour any person."

Some authorities say that Holland mistranslated Pliny's original 'pollices premere' text and that it should be 'to press the thumbs' rather than 'bend the thumbs'. Two positions are argued:

- One view is that we just have thumbs up and down the wrong way round.

- The other camp say that approval was indicated by a closed fist and disapproval by showing the thumb (either up or down).

If distinguished Roman scholars can't agree, what hope for the rest of us.

Whatever detail is correct, it is clear that the thumbs up and thumbs down gestures originated in ancient Rome. That is, it's clear if you ignore zoologists who tell us that some monkeys use a thumbs up gesture as we do. If they are correct and the gesture is innate in higher apes, then Rome has nothing to do with it.