Blame Ridley Scott and his 2000 movie “Gladiator” for this: our conception of the thumbs-up, thumbs-down gesture is the exact opposite of what it was during the reign of the Roman Empire. Anthony Philip Corbeill of the University of Kansas completed a study of this in the 1990s and determined that the thumbs up gesture was used in gladiatorial bouts as the “kill signal,” not thumbs down.
But Corbeill didn’t really need to dig that deeply, he simply could have read Montaigne:
In Rome it was a sign of approval to turn your thumbs and twist them downwards –Your fans admire your play by turning down both their thumbs –and of disapproval to raise them and extend them outwards.
The contemporary signal for thumbs-up and thumbs-down traces back to World War II airmen who used the thumbs up gesture to indicate that all was well before liftoff. It achieved universal fame in the late 1970s when film critics Gene Siskell and Roger Ebert chose to recap their reviews at the end of their “Sneak Previews” PBS TV show with thumb gestures.
None of which can explain why “Gladiator” got it so wrong. Actually, the kill signal wasn’t the thumbs-up gesture as we now know it either … it was a turned thumb, more akin to the old fashioned “you’re out” sign in baseball. A former umpire explained to me in 1985 that this gesture disappeared from the game sometime in the 1970s after one too many players impolitely asked the ump to stick their thumb up one of their orifices. The contemporary sign for calling a player out is more akin to a fist slamming down on the head.
Montaigne has some other things to say about thumbs too – such as the fact that Romans exempted from war-service those who had injured thumbs … which of course led to the war-averse injuring or even cutting off their own thumbs, eventually leading Augustus to seize the estate of a Roman knight who cut off the thumbs of his two sons to keep them from going to war.
The mob will often break the thumbs of problem customers, especially degenerate gamblers who do not pay back debts. The ulnar ligament in the thumb is prone to repetitive use injuries, made worse recently by texting and video game playing. In Italy, biting the thumb is an obscene gesture … sucking a thumb is seen as a sign of childishness.
When I was growing up, I remember watching White Sox, Yankees and Angels outfield Carlos May hit and was fascinated with how he could hit so well without the full use of this thumbs. Here’s how Baseball Digest in 2002 explained it:
While on duty as a Marine Reserve (in 1968) at a two-week summer camp at Camp Pendleton in California, the 215-pound slugger had part of his right thumb blown away when a mortar unit misfired. It was May’s job to swab out the mortars after they had been fired. The accident put his baseball career in immediate jeopardy. The thumb was on his throwing hand, which was also the bottom hand for his left-handed batting grip.
May went on to have a 10 year career in the Major Leagues, collecting more than 1100 hits and making the All-Star game in 1972. Thinking of how difficult it would be for me to even write this piece without the full use of my thumbs, I’m in awe of May’s achievements.