thumb the nose

Victor Steinbok aardvark66 at GMAIL.COM
Fri May 14 10:28:49 UTC 2010

I am curious about the origin of "thumb the nose" and the accuracy of
its dictionary descriptions.

OED nose P1. c (c)
> (c). to thumb one's nose: to put one's thumb to one's nose and extend
> the fingers, as a gesture of derision (usu. with at); (fig.) to act
> with blatant disregard for the feelings or status of a person,
> organization, etc.
> 1854 B. P. SHILLABER Veteran in Rhymes with Reason & Without 264 Nay,
> do not thumb thy nose, my son,{em}It is not well, forsooth; The story
> that I tell to thee Is simple, honest truth. 1903 R. DUNN Diary 25
> July (1907) ix. 109 He thumbed his nose at us. 1929 A. C. EDINGTON &
> C. EDINGTON Studio Murder Myst. iv. 37 Underlings in the studio
> thumbed their noses at his back. 1950 Sport 24 Mar. 21/3 He can afford
> to thumb his nose at any monopoly. 1987 Stock & Land (Melbourne) 18
> June 7/4 If a new Labor Government gets a big enough majority, this
> will enable it to thumb its nose at the farmers.

Incidentally, this is incorrectly cross-referenced (and linked on-line)
under "thumb" as "nose n. 8. f.".

Mitch Bainwol is the chairman and CEO of the Recording Industry
Association of America (RIAA), so I don't expect him to be a wordsmith.
Still, memos and press releases coming out under his name are not
authored by him. That didn't help.
> ...
> While many other peer-to-peer services have negotiated licenses or
> imposed filters, LimeWire has “thumbed its nose” at the law and music
> creators, Bainwol said.
> ...

Thumbed its nose? Really?

Wiktionary, and others list this as

> to show a sign of derision at someone or something by placing the
> thumb to the side of the nose. (Often while wiggling the other fingers
> of the hand.) even gives "etymology":

> Etymology: based on the literal meaning of /thumb your nose (to put
> your thumb to your nose as a rude sign)/

The definition is similar enough to the OED. The etymology contains an
odd use of "literal"--if one indeed puts a thumb to the nose to "thumb
the nose", what does it have to do with wiggling the other fingers?

Charles Krauthammer says US thumbs its nose at Britain, SNL thumbs its
nose at the FCC, Sprint thumbs its nose at Wall Street and "Panda thumbs
its nose at the dysteleological arguments of the atheist Stephen Jay
Gould." No, I am not kidding about the last one--its some creationist

So here's my question--is this really what "thumbing the nose" means? I
have no reason to dispute the dictionary definition, but I am curious if
there might be some suggestive contrary evidence that someone might have


The American Dialect Society -

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