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The little differences: 2. Thumbs crossed, Fingers squeezed

Expats and locals alike wish each other luck sometimes – but they do it their own way.

 By Martin Pütter

 The French artist, writer and director Jean Cocteau once wrote about luck: “We must believe in luck. For how else can we explain the success of those we don’t like?” That might sound a bit cynical, but there is no denying that we wish each other luck, and that also many times. You’re about to sit important exams? Both expats and Basel locals will wish you “Good luck!”

But wishing luck can also be expressed differently, and then – depending on your mother tongue – it involves different digits of your hand. You tell your friends from English-speaking countries that you have been invited to an interview for your dream job, and they promise: “I’ll keep my fingers crossed.” This is also the case, for example, in France or in Italy. However, if you are in the Netherlands, Norway, Germany or here in the German-speaking part of Switzerland and you your local friends or colleagues about this job interview, they say they’ll squeeze their thumbs for you (“Ich drück Dir die Daumen”).

Dress of thought

Now, the English writer Samuel Johnson once said that “language is the dress of thought”. In this case, to put it very simply (you could even say overly simply): when you cross your fingers, you show your Christian beliefs, but squeezing your thumbs shows your heathen thinking.

Various online sources agree that crossing fingers was originally a request for God’s protection, to ward off evil, as well as wishing luck. The early Christians, it is claimed, also used the sign of the crossed fingers as a sign of recognition. And in late medieval times, people in England were said to cross their fingers if somebody sneezed or coughed – again to ward off evil, as cough and sneezes were then thought to be early symptoms of the plague. But sometimes fingers are also crossed in case of a promise or of swearing an oath – but only if you do not intend to keep the promise or are telling a lie. In these instances the crossed fingers (i.e. the crucifix) would make sure you are not sent to hell.

Artistic liberties

With squeezed thumbs the background seems to vary. Some claim that for the old Germanic tribes the thumb symbolised gremlins and demons, hence putting your fingers around your thumb and squeezing it would keep the bad spirits at bay. Another interpretation is based on the belief of the Romans that the thumb symbolised the deadly sword. A thumb surrounded by fingers meant a sword sheathed – in other words, with this gesture the crowd could ask for mercy for a gladiator. The thumbs up, on the other hand, was a demand for the death of a gladiator. So forget those films about Roman times – it would not be the first time that Hollywood took artistic liberties (to put it mildly).

We all touch wood

So expats and Baslers use different digits to wish someone luck. Differences also exist when it comes to hunting or fishing. Native English speakers apparently wish each other just “good hunting” or “good sport” before they start, fishermen say “tight lines”. On the other hand, fishermen in Austria, Germany or Switzerland invoke the powers of their patron saint, Saint Peter (“Petri Heil”), and a huntsman would wish “Waidmannsheil”, which translates roughly as “good fortune to the hunter”, with “Waidmann” being an old German term for a huntsman.

However, when it comes to warding off bad luck, or if they want good luck to continue, both expats and locals – figuratively and literally – touch the same material: wood. It doesn’t matter whether you just touch it or knock on it. However, there is some debate about the origins. It goes back either to sailors touching the mast (to check the state of the ship), or to miners touching the wood securing the tunnels (to see whether the beams are still sound). There is also a Christian background: many early churches claimed to have remnants of the cross on which Jesus died, and touching that wood would bring fortune. We keep it simple: The Basel Journal wishes all readers good luck!

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