thumb the nose

George Thompson george.thompson at NYU.EDU
Fri May 14 12:44:48 UTC 2010

This topic came up in 2000, as a digression from a discussion of other matters.  At that time, I posted:
        The great folklorist Archer Taylor wrote a book called "The
Shanghai Gesture", on the history of the nose-thumbing gesture.
(Folklore Fellows Communication #166, 1956.)  (I take some quiet
pride in the thought that I am probably the only kid on my block to
have read both this and Charles Darwin's "Formation of Vegetable
Mould through the Action of Worms".)*  As I recall, Taylor concludes
that the Shanghai Gesture is a parody of the military salute, and
originated in fairly recent times.  Indeed, my father, (US Army,
WWI) when in his cups, would frequently give a salute, exclaiming as
he did so "you mustn't turn your head", and turn his head to the
right while holding his hand still, which converted the salute into
the nose-thumbing gesture.

*Actually, it's rather noisy pride. . . .  Both books are well worth reading, at least if you've nothing better at hand.  Taylor gathers quite a remarkable range of evidence from literature & art, while Darwin's book shows a scientist at work observing and experimenting.  As I recall, he showed that earthworms are tone-deaf by putting a bowl of them on his piano and playing for them.  Other than that they stood up when he played God Save the Queen, they just went about their business.

The gesture is also known as "cocking a shoot", I believe.


George A. Thompson
Author of A Documentary History of "The African Theatre", Northwestern Univ. Pr., 1998, but nothing much lately.

----- Original Message -----
From: Victor Steinbok <aardvark66 at>
Date: Friday, May 14, 2010 6:29 am
Subject: thumb the nose

> 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
> nonsense.
> 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
> uncovered.
> VS-)
> ------------------------------------------------------------
> The American Dialect Society -

The American Dialect Society -

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