Twiddle your Thumbs
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Hi, I’m Hilary and welcome to Adept English. If you’ve not listened to one of our podcasts before, then the aim is to help you improve your understanding of spoken English. Once you’ve learned the basics of grammar and you have a fairly good vocabulary in English – at least a knowledge of the most common words, what most people need is practice at listening to English being spoken. Typically this is what you don’t get on traditional language courses, so Adept English aims to supply you with this. We release podcasts every week on lots of different sorts of topics – and there is always a written transcript on our website at www.adeptenglish.com.
We’re currently in the middle of putting together some courses, which you’ll be able to buy online – which of course will give you spoken English, but also some real English conversation so you can practice your understanding – all of it transcripted, all of it will have a transcript as well, of course. In the meantime, if you haven’t already, sign up for our free online course, the Seven Rules of Adept English – this explains how our system of learning language works – and explains why tradition methods of learning language make it difficult to become fluent. The aim of Adept English is to prepare you to speak English automatically, without really having to think about it. The first rule of Adept English is to repeat the listening – so listen to this podcast a number of times – you can download it – and gradually try to ensure you understand all the words. Then once you’ve understood it, listen to it a few more times. This is just the first of the Adept English rules – there are six more rules to help you learn – but sign up for the free course to find out about these.
So onto the subject of today’s podcast. I thought that we would do some more idioms – those phrases that people who are English speakers say all the time, but which are puzzling or not may not make sense to people who are learning the language. Today I’ve selected a number of phrases and sayings which include the word thumb. In English, you can just choose just one little word – like the word thumb – usually you find there are a number of expressions which use it – and have particular meanings.
So thumb – what does the word mean first of all? You may know already but I’ll use rule 6 of Adept English to explain things, [the] ‘Nothing but English’ approach to explaining. If you think about your hands, people often say ‘You have 10 fingers on your hands’. However, what is more accurate is to say that you have 8 fingers and 2 thumbs. So your thumbs are the shortest digit on your hand – hopefully you get the idea of what a thumb is from this!
Just a word now about pronunciation. You may notice by the way that I’m saying ‘thumb’ – it’s one of those words which is pronounced differently from how it’s spelt. You notice I’m saying ‘thum’ and not pronouncing the ‘b’ on the end. If you see it written, you might think it was pronounced ‘thumB’. This is a common mistake which people make when learning English – it’s quite understandable of course. So ‘thum’ not ‘thumb’. It’s the same with the word bomb – sometimes you hear people on the news, talking about bombs or bombings – but correctly it’s pronounced ‘bom’ – we don’t say the final ‘b’. There are quite a few words in English with this ‘silent b’ at the end. For example a baby sheep is a ‘lamb’, not a ‘lamB’. If you lost feeling in one of your thumbs, you might say you had a ‘numb thumb’ – so ‘numb’ rather than ‘numB’. If you eat crusty bread for your lunch, it’s possible that you leave behind some little tiny bits on your plate – these would be ‘crumbs’, rather than ‘crumBs’ – I can’t even say ‘crumBs’, but it has a b at the end, which you don’t pronounce. If this is confusing, because you’re not seeing it written down– go to the website and look at the transcript to see the spelling of these words and you’ll see what I mean.
So let’s look at some phrases which you may come across, which include the word ‘thumb’. I’ve chosen a few phrases for today, but there are some more interesting ones – so I may well do another podcast at some point – part II about Thumbs, you never know.
You may come across the phrase ‘Twiddle your thumbs’. Someone may say something like ‘Next week, when my family are all away, I’ll be twiddling my thumbs’. ‘Twiddle’ is a verb which probably isn’t used that much in any other context – it means to move around in a circle, to twirl or turn something and it has the sense that you are doing it slowly, without purpose, without really thinking about it. It’s just something for your hands to do. So if you link your fingers together and then move your thumbs in a circular motion round each other – that is twiddling your thumbs. That’s the literal meaning, but it’s also used as an idiom. So if someone says ‘He was twiddling his thumbs’, it doesn’t necessary mean the person was making this movement with his thumbs. The meaning is that the person had nothing to do, he lacked a purpose. So not knowing what to do, not having anything to do, not being busy – you can say you’re ‘twiddling your thumbs’. Being idle is another way of describing this. Idle means having nothing to do. So twiddle your thumbs.
Another time when you may hear the word thumb being used slightly different – we say things like ‘She was thumbing through a magazine’. Or even ‘it was a well-thumbed book’. So thumb can be made into a verb – and it means you handle usually a book or magazine, turning pages with your thumbs. So you might go to get your hair cut at the hairdressers and they always have lots of magazines which maybe you wouldn’t normally read. But you might ‘thumb through a magazine’ while your hair is being cut – you’re not reading in depth, you’re just flicking through the pages. It’s got a casual sense to it – it’s not serious, it’s not hard work. You’re just looking through because it’s there. If someone talks about ‘a well thumbed book’ however, it tends to be slightly different in meaning. It has the sense that they have spent a long time reading that book, or perhaps lots of people have read that book, a lot of time has been spent,looking at the pages. Sometimes the corners of pages in books can get a bit dirty, if they’ve been read a lot – this a what ‘well-thumbed’ would look like.
Another phrase you might hear an English-speaking person say is ‘rule of thumb’. The sort of context is usually to do with measuring something – determining how big, or how small, or how much to use. If you were decorating a room for example, you might say ‘Well, a good rule of thumb is that it takes 2 litres of paint to cover the walls of a small room. Or ‘a good rule of thumb is that it takes 100g of pasta per adult ’. So ‘rule of thumb’ means a measurement which is a general estimate – a good guess, it’s not precise, it’s not accurate, but it gives you a good idea. Rule of thumb comes from times long ago, when people didn’t have access to things like rulers for measuring the length or height of something or scales for measuring the weight of something. So they would use parts of the body to do the measuring instead. Clearly it’s not superbly accurate, because of course the size of someone’s body differs enormously – so one person’s thumb is not the same size as another person’s thumb. But the aim is to give a general idea. So another example of how you might use this phrase – this is taken straight from a gardening website ‘As a rule of thumb onions should be planted 10-12 cm’s (5 inch) apart’ – so rule of thumb means ‘a general guide’, not wholly accurate, but a giving you a good idea of the measurement. If someone is painting a picture, making a painting, you may see them lift their thumb and use to measure what they can see in the distance to help them paint it accurately.
What does it mean if you hear ‘thumb your nose’ so if you thumb your nose at someone? Well, it’s quite a rude gesture – and a bit of a childish one! So by childish, I mean the sort of gesture a child might make, but which may also be tempting sometimes for an adult too. If you take your thumb and you put it against the end of your nose, with the tip of your thumb – the end of it – pointing to your mouth, and then raise your fingers and make them straight and you wiggle them, this is ‘thumbing your nose’. Wiggle means you move them around quickly, you move them fast! So while making this gesture, you would probably be looking at the person you were directing it towards. So it’s really showing your disrespect to somebody when you thumb your nose at them. When we use this phrase, unless we are talking about children, who may make this gesture, generally, we’re talking figuratively, rather than literally. ‘Literally’ means – actually doing it, actually making that gesture and ‘figuratively’ means that it represents your feelings, your attitude towards a person or a thing – or maybe an organisation perhaps. So an example of this may be someone ‘thumbs their nose at their neighbours – and paints their house green and red’. This would mean that the person knows his neighbours (neighbours are the people who live nearby), this person knows his neighbours wouldn’t like his house being painted green and red, but he’s doing it anyway to ‘thumb his nose at them’.
The last phrase today – you might hear somebody say ‘Oh – and it stuck out like a sore thumb’. If you can imagine a sore thumb – sore means it hurts, it’s injured – ‘Ow!’. Especially a thumb with a bandage on it. Now a bandage is what you put on an injury, wounds – in hospital perhaps to keep the wound, the sore clean.A bandage is a piece of white cloth which you wind round and round. So you might have a bandage on your leg, or you might have a bandage on your arm, especially to hold it in a certain position. So if you imagine a bandaged thumb would be very noticeable – you’d see it straight away. And even if you didn’t have a bandage on your thumb, if your thumb was sore, you’d probably stick it out to avoid hurting it further. So when someone says ‘It stuck out like a sore thumb’, what they mean is that the thing they’re talking about is very noticeable – you see it straight away. So if you look noticeably different to those around you, you might ‘stick out like a sore thumb’. The verb to ‘stick out’ has a number of meanings, but the meaning here – I’ll give you an image to explain. If you were a very tall person and you tried to go to sleep on a tiny tiny bed, then you would probably be uncomfortable, because your legs and your feet would ‘stick out’ over the end of the bed. So ‘stick out’ here means that something is too big or too long, so ‘sticking out like a sore thumb’. So again, if you’re using this as an idiom, if say, you went to a wedding and everybody else was dressed up – they’d put on their nicest clothes – and you were wearing your scruffy jeans and a Tshirt, then you might ‘stick out like a sore thumb’. Or if you had a child in a class of children at school who was very very tall at an early age – much taller than the other children, this child might feel that they stick out like a sore thumb, whenever the teacher looks at the class of children.
I hope these are useful explanations for you. And of course, I’ve given you a lot of other vocabulary to understand as well as the phrases and idioms which use the word thumb. As I said, there are some more phrases which mention thumbs, so I may do another podcast on it in the future. But, as ever listen to this podcast a number of times, so that the words and the phrases become automatic and familiar to you.
Have a lovely day. Speak to you again soon.