Saturday, May 22, 2004

Opposable Thumbs

Montaigne's essay, "On Thumbs," doesn't even fill two entire pages and reads more like an extended dictionary etymology than an essay. The word "thumb" in Latin is pollex meaning "the strong one". The French pouce is derived from the Latin. And, according to the translator's note, the English word for thumb comes from a Sanskrit word also meaning "the strong one." The Greeks had to be different. Their word, anticheir, means "another hand." Thumbs were held in high esteem. "Barbarian" kings used to bind a treaty by "pressing their right hands together and interlocking their thumbs until they had squeezed the blood to their tips, whereupon they lightly pricked them with a needle and sucked each other's blood." And in Greece and Rome if a man had no thumb or had injured his thumb he was excused from military service because he could not firmly grasp his weapon. In Rome, a vote of thumbs up from the crowd got you killed. And in Sparta schoolmasters punished a student by biting the student's thumbs. That's about all Montaigne had to say about thumbs. But it got me to thinking about the stubby digit. Thumbs, after all, are humanity's greatest evolutionary triumph. Think about it. In fact, see how far you can get through your day without using your thumbs. We take our thumbs for granted, and even make fun of them. Aside from thumbs up being a positive expression in America we have some phrases that aren't so approving. When someone is clumsy we say "he's all thumbs" and we "thumb our nose" at someone or something as a dismissive insult. But without the hard-working thumb we'd never be able to "thumb a ride" and thus write inspired road novels. Those of us who quail at such adventure would never be able to "thumb through" the adventurer's novel without that precious digit. And childhood would never be the same without stories of Tom Thumb or Thumbelina. Poor Little Jack Horner in his corner would not be such a good boy if he pulled out that plum with his finger. Be good to your thumbs and they will be good to you. Next week's Montaigne essay: "On Fear"