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Rule of Thumb

Quarter-plate tintype by an anonymous photographer. Ronald S. Coddington Collection.
Quarter-plate tintype by an anonymous photographer. Ronald S. Coddington Collection.

A photographer captured this Union officer giving the time-honored gesture of derision or disdain. His technique matches an instruction printed in an 1863 issue of the Semi-Weekly Wisconsin of Milwaukee: “Put thumb to nose, and gyrate the extended fingers for a moment.”

Though Oxford Dictionary dates the origin of the phrase “thumb the nose” to 1854, Newspapers.com reveals examples in England as early as 1840, and the U.S. in 1841.

One Civil War example involves Gen. Pierre G.T. Beauregard after the First Battle of Manassas in 1861. As the story goes, a member of the 11th New York Infantry—the rowdy Fire Zouaves—was hauled before the victorious general and “manifested his contempt for that chieftain by putting his thumb to his nose and gyrating with his finger.” The Zouave then kicked and knocked about a few nearby soldiers, challenged Beauregard to a fight, and then took off running. He was soon apprehended and tossed into solitary confinement.

The yarn finishes, “The rebels seem to admire the cool audacity of the chap, and Beauregard laughed heartily at his pranks.”


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