Monday, February 7, 2011

Apple #506: Keep Your Fingers Crossed

I just finished watching the Super Bowl.  I happen to like the Packers, have done for quite a while, so I'm happy with the result, though the third quarter was rough.  Congratulations to the team, and get well soon, Charles Woodson!

OK, now it's on to Daily Apple business.  I thought about choosing a Super Bowl-related topic, but I'm sure people will be tired of that topic soon enough.  So I decided to go with one I've had in mind for a while, but that's maybe somewhat related: crossing your fingers.

See? Fans cross their fingers for their favorite players or teams all the time. This woman is at Wimbledon in 2004.
(Photo from Chicago Now

I recently told someone I was keeping my fingers crossed for them, and it struck me as a sort of strange thing to say.  Yes, I know, it's a way of wishing someone good luck, but where did that phrase come from?  What are we really doing when we cross our fingers?

  • There are many theories on the origin of this phrase.  Usually, when there are many theories, that means no one knows for sure.  But I'll present each one and give you my reasons for why I prefer one over the others.
  • The Random House Dictionary of Popular Proverbs and Sayings is only partially helpful.  It provides a definition, though not a story of origin.  It defines "keep your fingers crossed" as follows: "Hope for success. The saying derives from the superstition that bad luck may be averted by making the sign of the cross. Originated in the 1920s."
  • First of all, making the sign of the cross and crossing your fingers are two different actions.  Second, stating that this particular action comes from a superstition is like defining a word by using the definition of the word.  Finally, dating this as recently as the 1920s seems way too recent to me.  The dictionary offers no reason why I should accept this date as accurate, either.  So I'm going to pass on this one.

  • Another theory says the practice emerged during the Hundred Years' War (1137-1457) between France and England.  According to this theory, archers about to shoot an arrow would cross their fingers and pray or wish for luck, then draw back the bow string and fire.
  • This time period seems closer to what I would expect.  The little story I read about this doesn't say so, but I'd expect the reason archers may have done this, or may be thought to have done this, is that presumably one hand was busy holding the bow, so they'd only have one hand free.  But would they have had time to make a gesture like this before firing off arrows in the heat of battle?  Maybe, maybe not.  Even so, I'm liking this tale as a possible origin.  But it still seems incomplete.  Where did they get the idea for that particular gesture?

  • A lot of people like to say that it originated from when the early Christians were hiding from persecutors, and they would cross their fingers as a secret signal to each other. 
  • I've only seen this tale mentioned, but never with any sources or dates or documents or anything like that.  Which leads me to believe this tale is apocryphal.

  • Here's the theory that seems the most credible to me: the gesture dates back to pre-Christian times in Europe.  Way back then, people thought that crosses were good signs, and the intersection point was where good spirits met.  Originally, making the gesture took two people: Person A placed his or her index finger across the index finger of Person B.  At the same time, one or both people made a wish. It was believed that the wish was "trapped" in the intersection of the crossed fingers and would therefore come true. Over time, the gesture got diluted so that two people weren't necessary, and one person could cross his or her fingers and make the wish.
  • This tale rings true to me because that gesture does seem to be really old and pervasive, it does seem to be more pagan than Christian, and I think it's true of human nature that things we start out doing very formally or ritually often change over time to some more simplified and informal version.
  • Finally, this is the story as unearthed by Charles Panati, who is a physicist and former science editor for six years for Newsweek, and he's written six books on the origins of things, including Extraordinary Origins of Ordinary Things, where this information appears.  So I'm going to cast my vote in favor of his theory.

  • One final wrinkle: what about the time-honored tradition of crossing your fingers behind your back to negate a lie that you've just told?  
  • I don't really have the sources to back it up, but some people say that it actually comes from the same place, it's just used in a different setting.  Since crossing your fingers is supposed to bring in the good spirits, the idea is that they'd be there to ward off any bad spirits brought on by the lie you just told.
  • Didn't work too well for Veruca Salt, though. 
  • (Remember? In the inventing room, when Wonka is handing out Everlasting Gobstoppers and he says you mustn't give them to anyone else, and they all say, "Agreed," except Veruca Salt crosses her fingers behind her back.  And then this happened to her.)

Veruca Salt, crossing her fingers to ward off her lie. She never did get a chance to show her Everlasting Gobstopper to anybody, though. By the way, did you know her first name means Wart in Latin?
(Photo was from, but it's now 404 Not Found)

Random House Dictionary of Popular Proverbs and Sayings, cited in Yahoo Answers by cheeky chic
Hiss.In, Idioms, Sayings, and More, Keep your fingers crossed, Fingers Crossed
The Straight Dope, What's the origin of keeping your fingers crossed? July 10, 2000
Panati's Extraordinary Origins of Ordinary Things, pages 8-9
Straight Dope message boards, Straight dope on Crossing fingers

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