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Thumbs Up or Thumbs Down?


In this week’s archive episode, we revisit the musical language of railroad conductors’ calls, and chat with a Vietnam vet about a term he often heard while serving, “cumshaw artist.” We also talk about the influence of Spanish on English, the funny story behind why plain-talking Texans say, “We’re going to tell how the cow ate the cabbage,” and recommend books for getting started with Latin.


Speaking of Latin, boy, did you ever give us an earful about the term “up or down vote”! You may remember we told a Montana caller that “up or down” reflects the idea that the vote specifically addresses the bill at hand — that it’s a “yes” or “no” vote on the bill itself, not about the legislative process. Many, many of you told us we were wrong. Typical was Seldon in Dallas, who wrote: “I read somewhere that a “thumbs up or thumbs down” vote was an ancient Roman emperor’s way of ending or sparing a gladiator’s life. Maybe that’s where an ‘up or down vote’ comes from.”

Well, you sent us back to our references, but we’re still not convinced. For one thing, “Gladiator” notwithstanding, it’s unclear whether “thumbs up” and “thumbs down” meant the same thing in ancient Rome that it means today. The “Encyclopaedia Romana” describes the difficulty of translating ancient Roman references to gestures involving thumbs. Depending on which Latin writer you read, the thumb pointing upward may signal disapproval, or at worst, “death,” mimicking a stab to the heart with the upraised thumb. Read the whole article, and you’ll also get to see the great 1872 painting of a gladiator that influenced modern notions of the gesture.


Also, worth a look: “Nature Embodied: Gesture in Ancient Rome” by University of Kansas classics professor Anthony Corbeill. You’ll find it on Google Books, and if you search for “thumbs up” it yields lots of interesting insights, including a reference to Frenchmen in World War II beginning to adopt the “thumbs up” gesture from Yanks — about half a century, incidentally, after the emergence of the term “up or down vote.” In other words, “thumbs up” doesn’t seem to be as universal a gesture as you might think. The image of thumbs may well influence how many people think “up or down votes” today, but it doesn’t appear to be the source.


Speaking of world wars, how do you refer to the first one when writing? “First World War”? “WW I”? Writer Susan Orlean grappled with this question recently in the online-only version of The New Yorker:


Behind the scenes: Now that it’s summer, we’re taking a short break from recording hour-long versions of our show. In the meantime, we’ll be using the time off to do some fundraising so we can keep bringing you more shows, plus a bit of traveling and research. We’ll also be doing a couple of super-duper things we can’t tell you about just yet!

So if you listen to us on your local public radio station, you’ll hear a few archive editions of “A Way with Words.” However, we’ll still be bringing you brand-new podcasts each week. In fact, this week, you’ll get two of them. These “minicasts” are just a few minutes long — callers we didn’t get a chance to put on the air, and the occasional essay or interview with a newsmaker in the world of language. So keep on downloading, and the hour-long version will be back before you know it! And don’t forget you can always stay in touch with us via Twitter


and on our Facebook page


and on our discussion forum at waywordradio.org.


We’re always glad to hear from you, however you choose to keep in touch, including phone and email. So please keep sending us your thoughts.


Martha and Grant

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