What’s up with ‘thumbs up’?
Earlier this year, Netflix swapped its five-star rating system for a thumbs up/thumbs down option. Two thumbs, no doubt, call up the signature review style of the American movie critic duo, Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert. They may also suggest some social media savviness, as Facebook has long used a thumbs up icon for its ‘like’ button. The real reason for the change, though, is that the thumb approach helps the binge-provider more accurately determine what content viewers are likely to watch. But not everyone is a fan of Netflix’s switch and, well, give it a thumbs down – which, if we look to the history of the gesture, may have actually been a thumbs up. Wait, what’s up with that?
Under the thumbs
The thumbs up/thumbs down gesture is popularly traced back to the gladiatorial spectacles of ancient Rome. When a fighter bested a foe, as the story goes, he would stand before the spectators. If the crowd flashed a thumbs up, they wanted the gladiator to spare the life of his opponent, and so the gesture became associated with approval or positivity. Thumbs down, on the other, er, hand, signaled a kill.
The record just doesn’t quite support this explanation, though. In fact, it says the opposite. The earliest English evidence for the gesture, indeed in the context of the Roman bloodsport, comes from the 17th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. The first, a 1601 translation of Pliny the Elder’s Natural History by Philemon Holland, reads: ‘To bend or bow downe the thumbes when wee give assent unto a thing, or doe favour any person’. The second, John Dryden’s 1693 translation of Juvenal’s Satires, goes: ‘Where…with Thumbs bent back, they popularly kill’. Thumb bent down? Good. Thumb bent back? Bad.
But what, exactly, is ‘bent down’ or ‘bent back’? The confusion, according to scholars like Desmond Morris in his 1979 book, Gestures, may in part be due to the original Latin used for this gladiatorial ‘finish him’: pollice verso, literally ‘with thumb turned’, but without specifying the direction. And in a 1997 article, classicist Anthony Philip Corbeill concluded that the pollice verso aggressively extended the thumb skywards. As for showing mercy, it seems the thumb wasn’t pointed at all, as historic text and artwork communicate or depict a ‘closing’ or ‘pressing down’ the thumb on the fist (pollice compresso).
By the late 19th and early 20th century, the thumbs had flipped in the popular imagination – and lexicon. The OED cites Rudyard Kipling’s 1906 Puck of Pook’s Hill for its first evidence for naysaying thumbs down: ‘We’re finished men—thumbs down against both of us’. A few decades later, the dictionary finds the A-OK thumbs-up in War Illustrated: ‘French peasants now return the “thumbs up” gesture with which they are greeted by British troops on their way to the front’.
Why, exactly, the thumbs went topsy-turvy is unclear. It may have been influenced by Jean-Léon Gérôme’s 1872 painting, ‘Pollice Verso’, which depicts a victorious gladiator looking to a frenzied crowd of thumbs down, which beholders may have commonly interpreted as ‘kill’.
Or perhaps our modern thumbs up/thumbs down gesture, for all its connection to Caesar’s Rome, is inherited from traditions outside the Coliseum altogether. Morris has suggested a medieval tradition in which two parties agreed to a deal by licking their thumbs and pressing them together. Over time, we kept the thumb and ditched the spit to express approval. Linguistic anthropologist Joel Sherzer, meanwhile, has said that thumbs up/thumbs down reflects an ancient dichotomy between up as a metaphor for ‘good’ and down for ‘bad’ in European communication.
Netflix aimed to simplify its rating system with the quick-and-easy thumbs up or down, but, at least as far as the history’s concerned, the gesture is anything but. None of this is to mention that, in some cultures, the thumbs up is offensive or even obscene. And what about the fact that, even if we offer up only one thumb, we still say, in the plural, thumbs up? All of this thumb business has me, for one, seeing stars.