thimble /ˈθɪmbəl/

The word thimble

At the venerable age of 82, the Monopoly thimble has been retired. In an attempt to move the classic board game into the 21st century, Hasbro, the owners, has taken out the thimble, the boot, and the wheelbarrow, to make room for the T-Rex, the rubber duck, and the penguin. It may seem a little ironic that one dinosaur has been replaced by another but it’s perhaps not too surprising that thimbles no longer resonate with the game-playing public – or indeed with anyone under the age of 30. Just out of curiosity, I checked the sewing box we have in the basement, which may be the first time in many years since I’ve done that, and found that even I do not have a thimble.

For those who really don’t know what a thimble is [1], it’s a small cup that can be worn on the tip of a finger or thumb to prevent being hurt by a needle while doing some stitching of cloth. Thimbles have been found dating from the Bronze Age and so been a part of civilization for about 2,500 years. In fact, finger-covering bones have been found dating from 30,000 years ago, used by mammoth hunters to stitch leather. However, it’s currently waning in popularity except as a specialist tool; similar to the fountain pen.

thimbles

The word sound itself hints at its etymological origins. The first mention in writing is around 1000 CE in the book Leechdoms, wortcunning, and starcraft of early England. Being a collection of documents, for the most part never before printed, illustrating the history of science in this country before the Norman conquest The word is realized as þýmel and comes from þúma meaning “thumb.” The “-el” ending is a suffix that can be used to form the name of tools, in this case a tool for the thumb. Going even further back, the þúma comes from the Germanic *þūmon, which in turn can be traced back to the pre-Germanic *tûmon for “the thick finger.” The ultimate root seems to be – meaning “to swell,” and this is related to Sanskrit tūtumá meaning “strong,” Avestan tûma for “fat,” and Latin tumēre meaning “to swell.” So “a covering for a fat swollen finger” just about sums it up.

During the English Civil Wars of 1642 to 1651, the forces of King Charles I, who was fighting against the Parliamentarians led by Oliver Cromwell, referred to the Parliamentary forces as the “Thimble and Bodkin Army.” This was because:

On the parliamentary side the subscriptions of silver offerings included even such little personal articles as those that suggested the term, the ‘Thimble and Bodkin’ army. (Dowell, 1894, The History of Taxation in England).

Unluckily for Charles, he underestimated the value of thimbles and bodkins, and he was beheaded in 1649.

At the beginning of the 18th century, another use for the thimble was in the activity of thimblerigging, an early version of the more recent “shell game.” Three thimbles were placed on a table and a pea hidden under one of them. The operator would then move the thimbles around and people would be invited to bet on where the pea ended up. Unsurprisingly, the whole thing was typically a con and the ultimate winner was the person doing the shuffling – the thimblerigger.

The notion that thimbles are (a) small and (b) used for protection has resulted in the word taking on other meanings. In the south of England, it was used for a ring or socket in the heel of a gate which turns on a pin in the gate-post. In the nautical world, it was used to refer to a broad ring of metal with a concave outer surface, around which the end of a rope was spliced, so that the thimble formed an eye to the rope. By the 19th century, it referred to a ring or tube, or similar part, in phrases such as a thimble-coupling or thimble-joint.

It’s also been used to describe the outer casing of a rifle-ball, a rest for pottery as it cools, a tool in dentistry, a criminal slang word for a watch, and a paper cone used as part of a fat-extraction device! Furthermore, in botany, the Foxglove, Harebell, and Sea Campion have all been called “Witches’ Thimbles” or “Fairy Thimbles” because of the shaped of the flowers, as has the cup that contains acorns.

Witches Thimble - Foxglove

Foxglove – Fairy Thimbles

As if this wasn’t enough, the Oxford English Dictionary has 40 different examples of thimble being used in phrases, from thimble-belt and thimble-berry through to thimble-top and thimble-weed. Oh, and a thief who specializes in stealing watches is called a thimble-screwer.

Finally, a jocular alternative to the word tailor, is “Knight of the Thimble,” along with “Knight of the Needle” and “Knight of the Shears.” So although the humble thimble may have lost its place in the Monopoly game piece pantheon, it still has a long and productive etymological history of which it can be proud.

Notes
[1] For those of us old enough to remember when thimbles were a standard household item, and those for whom it still is, it can be difficult to imagine that there are people who honestly don’t know what one is. I still have a hard time with folks who don’t know where the word spam comes from in relation to email. And yes, it’s from a “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” sketch.

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