I, like most people, know that the phrase “thumbs up” means “a sign of acceptance,” “a sign of approval,” or “job well done.” Because of this, “thumbs up” is used in many different contexts. Most often, the sign of thumbs up is given. This is the hand, closed in a fist with the fingers all together, but the thumb pointing upwards into the air. There are the rare occasions when a person is not able to see the sign of thumbs up, so a person will say, “thumbs up.” Then, there are some people that always say “thumbs up” when they give the sign of thumbs up.
Many people think this came from the movie critics Ebert and Roeper. This is because of their rating system of giving movies a number of thumbs up or thumbs down. However, this is far from the truth. The signs of thumbs up is much older than Ebert and Roeper.
It is thought that the original source of thumbs up is from Roman Gladiators. A defeated Roman Gladiator could be saved from death row when the sign of thumbs up was given. It is not certain if this is by the majority of the crowd or if it was by the emperor. While this is the most widely accepted origin of the phrase, it is not certain. Some people say that if a thumb was shown, the Roman Gladiator was sentenced to death, and thus did not want to see any thumbs.
In 1872, Jean-Léon Gérôme painted “Pollice Verso.” Some people think that the thumbs down given in the painting is a sign of disapproval. However, the name of the painting only translates as “turned thumb.” It is not certain if the painting is meant to show thumbs down or just turned thumbs as Juvenal wrote, “…to-day they hold shows of their own, and win applause by slaying whomsoever the mob with a turn of the thumb bids them slay…” in Satires.
Scholars debate the meaning of the thumb when it comes to Roman Gladiators. Some think that we had it the wrong way. They think that a thumbs down was good and a thumbs up was bad. Others say that approval was shown by showing a closed fist while disapproval was shown by showing a thumb.
No matter how the origin of the phrase or the hand gesture of “thumbs up” came to be, it seems to be somehow linked to interpretations of proceedings that happened with the Roman Gladiators.
Even now, the hand gesture of “thumbs up” can be controversial. Some Iraqis probably know the American meaning and give the sign of thumbs up to troops to indicate support. However, the traditional Iraqi meaning of the gesture of “thumbs up” meant “up yours!”
The thumbs up gesture is also used to indicate to a crane operator when to raise the boom.
Then, thumb up can be found in many sign language signs. I know this quite well as I was raised around somebody that was deaf and mute. For a small amount of time, I served as her Personal Care Assistant.
The sign for “ten” is a thumbs up. The sign for “yourself ” is a thumbs up that is moved forward twice, but just slightly. The sign for “help” is a thumbs up that is lifted with the opposite hand.
Koerner, B. I. (n.d.). What does a “thumbs up” mean in Iraq? – By Brendan I. Koerner – Slate Magazine . Slate Magazine. Retrieved July 21, 2010, from http://slate.msn.com/id/2080812/
MAXBOOM.com – HAND SIGNALS. (n.d.). Maxboom.com – Equipment Safety Services. Retrieved July 21, 2010, from http://www.maxboom.com/Members_Only/handsignals.html
Martin, G. (n.d.). Thumbs up. The meanings and origins of sayings and phrases | List of sayings | English sayings | Idiom definitions | Idiom examples | Idiom origins | List of idioms | Idiom dictionary | Meaning of idioms. Retrieved July 21, 2010, from http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/thumbs-up.html
Pollice Verso. (n.d.). Sir Thomas Browne. Retrieved July 21, 2010, from http://penelope.uchicago.edu/~grout/encyclopaedia_romana/gladiators/polliceverso.html
Sign for HELP | ASL Sign Language Video Dictionary. (n.d.). Signing Savvy | ASL Sign Language Video Dictionary. Retrieved July 21, 2010, from http://www.signingsavvy.com/sign/HELP
Sign for TEN | ASL Sign Language Video Dictionary. (n.d.). Signing Savvy | ASL Sign Language Video Dictionary. Retrieved July 21, 2010, from http://www.signingsavvy.com/sign/TEN
Sign for YOURSELF | ASL Sign Language Video Dictionary. (n.d.). Signing Savvy | ASL Sign Language Video Dictionary. Retrieved July 21, 2010, from http://www.signingsavvy.com/sign/YOURSELF