Two Thumbs Up (and One Down)
The Proper Spelling For Thumbs Up
As you may know, I am a member of the Apostrophe Protection Society and have written a guide to The Care and Feeding of Apostrophes. Apostrophes are very important to me. But one question has long stymied me: how to spell thumbs up.
This has nagged at me for years. So today I have decided to get to the bottom of the mystery.
How Do YOU Spell Thumbs Up? - Grammar By Committee: A Million Text Message Users Can't Be Wrong!
Thumbs Up: A Mini Grammar Lesson
This Is What Puzzled Me
Apostrophes are used for two things, and ONLY two things.
(1) Possession. The possessor, or owner, is indicated by an apostrophe + s.
Example: Today's weather forecast is bad news for brass monkeys.
"Thumb" does not own "up". Therefore, it would be incorrect to use an apostrophe to show possession.
(2) Contraction. When words fuse, an apostrophe indicates where a letter has dropped out.
Example: He's making a list; he's checking it twice. ("He's" is short for "he is".)
Here is where I was stuck.
Perhaps, when we say thumbs up, we mean the thumb is up, just as the surf's up?
In fact, looking around the web, many people have argued exactly that, and one of my commenters has reported a college professor standing by the apostrophe for this reason.
However, as a humble classics MA, I'm going to have to differ with said prof. Here's why.
For Those in a Hurry...
After some research, I've determined that
is the most common spelling, but
is also acceptable.
TWO Thumbs Are Up?
Hollywood Is ALWAYS Accurate, After All
Then I got to think about Siskel and Ebert, famous movie reviewers who often gave "two thumbs up!"
For them, the word "is" is clearly not involved. "Two thumbs is up" would be terrible grammar.
They were using two thumbs. Plural nouns do NOT use an apostrophe, except to indicate possession. Once again, up is not owned by thumbs, so there is no reason for an apostrophe.
Once Gene Siskel passed away, Roger Ebert did not cease giving two thumbs up, even though he sadly no longer had the services of Siskel's thumb. In fact, Ebert has registered "Two thumbs up" as a trademark, so I should really be spelling it "Two thumbs up ®".
The Romans Were All Thumbs
The Apocryphal Origin of Thumbs Up
Supposedly, the expression "thumbs up" comes from the ever-practical Roman along with concrete and pay toilets.
According to popular lore, victorious gladiators looked to the emperor for instructions after winning a duel. Thumbs up meant the loser could live to collect another paycheck. Thumbs down meant an ex-gladiator.*
The Romans, like SIskel and Ebert, possessed multiple thumbs. So again, the idiom cannot be a contraction: there ARE thumbs up, not IS, so thumbs cannot be a contaction for "thumb is". That eliminates one of two reasons to use an apostrophe.
Up was not possessed by thumbs in Roman times any more than now, so there is no possession involved. That's The Exorcist in the next theater over; we're watching Gladiator.
"Thumbs up" is therefore an idiom like "watch out" (out of what?) or "heads up."
Confusingly, some sources from the 1800s use "thumbs up," while others (like Merriam-Webster's) use "thumbs-up".
Did The Romans Really Use Thumbs Up/Down?
And What Is the Latin For Thumbs Up or Down?
It is unclear what gesture the Romans actually used. The Latin phrase for "thumbs up" is pollice verso, which literally means, "turned thumb." Turned in? Out? Up? Down?
I don't know, and other classics scholars don't know either. Thumbs up or down may have evolved into the gesture we know today after Roman times, or it may be a Hollywood invention.
However, the Romans certainly used thumbs in some manner to indicate approval or disapproval.
Note that in some countries, to this day, the thumbs up gesture is considered obscene and rude. Check out this excellent article on the history and meaning of thumbs up for more information and several quotes.
Thumbs Up Has It
All Right, Enough Beating Around the Bush
What we need are examples.
So, first of all, the aforementioned article quotes four sources from the 1800s which use thumbs up, and a 1967 source which uses thumbs-up.
- Cambridge University Press Dictionary
- Oxford University Press Dictionary
- Here's the BBC's page on the phrase thumbs up. If you search "BBC thumbs up," the majority of examples are hyphen-free.
- Oxford Dictionaries (online, not to be confused with OUP)
- Siskel and Ebert
For what it's worth, my poll at the top of this page has thumbs up leading by a clear margin.
In conclusion, conventional usage, many respected dictionaries and arbiters of English, and early sources for the phrase seem to give thumbs up a thumbs up.*
I have not found any dictionary or style manual that spells the phrase with an apostrophe.
*You will have to pry the Oxford comma out of my cold, dead fingers, especially after what happened to poor Nelson Mandela.
I hope you've learned something from this exercise in grammatical pedantry. If you liked it, why not give it a thumbs up?
© 2011 Ellen Brundige
Wait! Before You Go... - Drop a Note or Leave a Thumbs Up!
F R A N C H E S C A on April 07, 2020:
This is a cool content! Stay smart and curious! :)
interesting on March 16, 2015:
E L Seaton from Virginia on September 23, 2011:
Thumbs up. This is one of those mysteries that I had to get to the end of the lens to be a better write. Thumbs up yet again to you squiddly one!
AbsoluteJeanius1 on April 07, 2011:
I use 'thumb's up' when I speak of a thumb's up, but I would write 'thumbs up' if I am saying I wish each of my lenses had twenty thumbs up for it, lol.
When I taught, I'd review lessons by asking questions with two choices and instructing the entire class to show me a discreet thumb up for A and thumb down for B. It let me check everyone's understanding and discover areas that needed reteaching easily and quickly. :D
SandyPeaks on February 17, 2011:
How about I give it THE thumbs up - which is how I've always heard it...and a SquidAngel Blessing for your exactitude!
Ellen Brundige (author) from California on February 15, 2011:
@Wendy Leanne: Oh, drat! You see, I always spelled it as your professor did, but several friends of mine, including both librarians and English majors, have called me on the habit. So I went in search of evidence. Unsurprisingly, it's found both ways all over the net. Squidoo is not a reliable source; there are broken apostrophes in several places. However, I thought the online Encyclopedia Britannica, Merriam-Webster's and Oxford English Dictionary were trustworthy sources!
I think I may need to visit that most antiquated of institutions, the library, to resolve this question once and for all.
Wendy Leanne from Texas on February 15, 2011:
My Senior year of college I had to take Advanced Modern Grammar. Our professor told us it's thumb's up because it is in fact short for saying "my thumb is up." Also, it would be grammatically incorrect to say you give something a thumbs up since "a" represents singular and "thumbs" is plural. But giving a thumb's up would be acceptable.
Your thoughts about the Romans really made me pause. You're right. I remember learning that it was a "turned thumb." We all just assumed it was a thumb's up or thumb's down. Very interesting. I wish we knew for sure what their gesture was.
My husband is well traveled, having served in the military, and he told me that in some countries a thumb's up is the same as the American gesture for up yours. That would sure stink to be gesturing someone "good job" and they think you meant something rude.
Squidoo agrees with you. My angel tool says "thumbs up." This is the first lens I'm blessing in my newly assigned "English & Writing" neighborhood. Thumb's up. ;)