Q: Why is an ability to grow plants called “a green thumb” in the US and “green fingers” in the UK?
A: Both expressions showed up in writing in the 20th century, “green fingers” first and “green thumb” a few decades later, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. Similarly, “green fingered” appeared first, followed by “green thumbed.”
We’ve found “thumb” and “fingers” examples in both American and British writing, but a good gardener generally has “a green thumb” in the US and “green fingers” in the UK, according to the Corpus of Contemporary American English and the British National Corpus.
We think the written evidence clearly indicates that the original expression was “green fingers,” though F. E. L. Priestley, a language scholar at the University of Toronto, has suggested that “a green thumb” may have come first.
In A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional Language (2006), Eric Partridge quotes Priestley, one of his correspondents, as saying, “I think the original was ‘a green thumb,’ probably by analogy with the miller’s ‘golden thumb’ (as in Chaucer).”
In the General Prologue to The Canterbury Tales (circa 1386), Geoffrey Chaucer writes that the miller “hadde a thombe of gold.” Scholars have debated whether the reference is to the grain-colored thumb of the miller or his heavy Midas touch in weighing the flour.
In early editions of his slang dictionary, which was first published in 1961, Partridge says the expression to “have green fingers” was coined by C. H. Middleton, the host of “In Your Garden,” a popular BBC radio program in the 1930s and ’40s.
But as newly discovered written evidence indicated that the expression predated the radio show, later editions of the slang dictionary, edited by Paul Beale, say that “perhaps the phrase was merely popularized by Mr. Middleton.”
Our guess is that the influence of Middleton’s BBC show may have encouraged the use of the “green fingers” idiom in the UK. However, we haven’t seen any reasonable theories of why Americans prefer “green thumb.”
As we’ve said before on the blog, idioms are peculiar to a people, place, or community, and they don’t have to make literal sense. However, we doubt that Chaucer’s “thombe of gold” has anything to do with the American usage. We’ve seen no evidence to support it.
The earliest OED citation for “green fingers” is from The Misses Make-Believe, a 1906 novel by the Scottish-born writer Mary Stuart Boyd: “What old wives call ‘green fingers’: those magic digits that appear to ensure the growth of everything they plant.”
The dictionary defines “green fingers” as a “skill or success in making plants grow, esp. in to have green fingers.” The first example of the verb phrase is from Congo Song, a 1943 novel by the South African writer Stuart Cloete:
“Some men have green fingers. Plants like them. They can make things grow because they love them.”
The first Oxford citation for “green thumb” is from the July 9, 1937, issue of the Ironwood (MI) Daily Globe:
“Besides being green-eyed, Miss Dvorak has what is known as ‘the green thumb.’ That’s horticultural slang for being a successful gardener with instinctive understanding of growing things.”
The dictionary’s earliest example for “green-fingered” is from Colour in My Garden, a 1918 book by the American gardening writer Louise Beebe Wilder:
“Under the care of our green-fingered grandmothers gardens throve and were full of hearty, wholesome colour.” (In addition to “green-fingered,” Wilder uses the British spelling of “color.”)
The first Oxford citation for “green-thumbed” is from the June 6, 1937, Washington Post: “He is, I think, the ‘green-thumbed’ type of gardener, who has lived and loved his flowers and has learned from them and from the soil.”
We’ve seen many theories for why the word “green” is used in both “green thumb” and “green fingers.” The most common are that one’s thumbs or other fingers are stained green by handling mossy flowerpots or by pinching old blooms when deadheading.
Although the two theories make sense, we’ve seen no evidence in early Oxford citations that the writers were using “green fingers” or “green thumb” literally.
We suspect that “green” here is being used loosely in a gardening sense, much as it’s used in an environmental sense in such expressions as “green movement” (1977), “green energy” (1980), “green-minded” (1984), “green economy” (1986), and so on.
We’ve written several times on the blog about “green,” including a post about the golfing expression “rub of the green,” an item about whether a tree can blush green, and a piece about the sexual use of the word.