(asked by Andrea from somewhere)

Someone told me that the French don’t point with their index finger, and they don’t use their index finger to indicate the number one either. Are either of these things true? If so, what’s the deal?


Well Andrea,

That someone was right. At least, mostly right.

Let’s see into more details.

Pointing with your index finger

It is considered to be rude in France (actually I thought it was in the entire Western World, I guess not). Why exactly? Not sure. Some say that it comes from the Bible where Judas points to Jesus when betraying him (I thought he kissed him? Oh, this Bible thing is very confusing, always contradicting itself, it’s amazing how so many people rely on it so much). Which in my opinion is quite unfair, look, John the Baptist is one of the most famous index pointer and nobody has a problem with it.

Hence the expression “montrer du doigt” in French (i.e. pointing with your finger) meaning denouncing or blaming.

Another theory has to do with witches and sorcerers as back in their heydays (before being massively burned to the stake) used to curse people while pointing at them with their index.

Truth is, we don’t really know where it comes from, but what we know is that when we were little kids we were being told over and over that we shouldn’t do it, and at the time we were too young to question why.

Note that this concerns pointing at people. Pointing at things, while technically not proper, is widely accepted as normal behavior. If not, how would it be possible to order your fruit at the market which is always so loud?

Counting with your fingers

Well, actually here, I have a question. Why don’t Anglos start counting with their index finger? Last I checked, most human beings had five fingers to each hand, so it only seems logical to start counting with the finger at one extremity of the hand or the other, in other terms either with the thumb or with the pinky. The French chose the thumb, it makes as much sense for other cultures to start with the pinky.

But starting with the index finger makes no sense at all.


Well, that was a short one today, but do not hesitate to comment anyway.

pixel Whats the Deal with the French and their Index Finger?

20 Responses to “What’s the Deal with the French and their Index Finger?”

  1. It’s considered rude to point in the USA, too, although that seems to have gone the way of a lot of manners here. If you’re Native American it’s still considered very rude, we’re taught to point with our lips or chin (and there are a lot of jokes in “Indian Country” about the amazing accuracy with which Indian mothers can point with their lips).
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    • That was my understanding (about it being rude in the US too), that’s why I was a bit confused by the question (maybe the person asking is not from the US,although I suspect she is)

  2. I guess using index finger is not really for counting per se, but to point out quantity of 1. If you use the thumb, then it’ll just look like thumb-up sign? Don’t know, I’m totally speculating (and avoiding work at the moment) ;)
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    • Reading my blog is a great way to avoid work. I’m with you on that (if I’d did the same, I’d post more often). :-)
      Well, in France too thumbs up means thumbs up (I assume it’s an American import) but the context as well as the text (what’s being said) will give the meaning of the sign.

      • No, it’s not American. It comes from Ancient Rome and gladiators - thumbs up meant the gladiator will live while thumbs down means… well, you can guess ;)

        • Well, yes, it originally comes from Rome (and before that who knows?). I’m just saying (and I may be wrong) that the current use in France most likely comes the US one way or the other (movies?), as there aren’t many reported cases of thumbs up (nor thumbs down) in France in between the Fall of the Roman Empire and the late 20th Century.
          But I could be wrong.

  3. To me, starting the count with your index finger is more relaxing. Gong from thumb to index creates an uncomfortable tensions. This could be linked to we Americans not using it. :/

    • Really? Poor thing…
      You have uncomfortable tensions in your fingers???

      (this may be the most ridiculous explanation I have ever heard)

      (by the way, you should also think about changing nicknames, maybe you wanted to sound French or something, but maybe you should have double-checked what it means to call a person a “quiche” in French - or maybe you knew, it goes well with your “uncomfortable tensions” comment)

      • Are you sure you weren’t born in Paris? You’ve definitely got the rudeness you complain about. Anyway, no I don’t know what the nickname quiche means. It’s an effigy given to me after an unfortunate incident with a quiche… There is also ‘bon qui qui,’ but who wants to write that?

        • I guess “sarcasm” is not a concept you’re too familiar with either.
          Oh well…
          But seriously, you should check out what “quiche” means when applied to a person, that will avoid you some embarrassments.

          • Please. Whatever shtick you have going on, it ain’t sarcasm. (As an aside, I see you did not approve my other comment on your vegetarian article, funny) Either way, I’ll continue to read because I find you to be hilarious at other times.

            Quiche nickname will not be happening if I visit France.

          • Thanks for telling me the tone I’m using, because it’s obvious I don’t know it myself. :-)

  4. Oh it’s definitely rude to point with one finger, most especially if you’re pointing at a person. I can remember my mother smacking me (and more frequently my brother) if I did it in public! That’s why the Disney people “indicate” using two fingers rather than one. I think pointing with the lips might be considered rude if you were trying to indicate to a stranger the direction of the restrooms. But I didn’t grow up in “Indian Country” so that’s clearly a cultural thing. It is an interesting fact though, not one that I knew. I love these little facts around the board.

    Regarding the counting, I have no idea. I tend to count on my fingers according to the place that I’m counting. I am American so I learned to count starting with the index finger, but in my French classes we started with the thumb.

    It might have something to do with the cultural predominance of the finger? Though it seems to be an agreement that both Anglo and French cultures look down on pointing, so that’s probably not the reason. Maybe there was some Anglo-Saxon king who didn’t have thumbs and declared that all counting shall start with the index finger? (*halfway sarcastic*). Or maybe it’s just more acceptable to people in America to point at God with the index finger, whereas France and the rest of Europe looked down on that? (I blame the Puritans). And besides, what would we do with our big foam #1 hands (http://www.k-read.net/spiritstuff/Spirit_18foamhand.jpg) for sporting events if they all looked like thumbs up signs? How awkward would that be? (I’m just joking about the foam hands). Looks like we need a cultural anthropologist or a sociologist or some other -ogist to figure this one out. It would probably just be speculation though.

    • Interesting theories indeed, and I’m sure a historian or a cultural anthropologist would know the answer.
      I don’t think it has to do with religion too (or at least not in the way you suggest).
      Europe was as religious as America when it was founded (we just evolved, America didn’t).

  5. Just to add a cultural sneaky touch maybe it has to do with the fundamental approach of the mixed Angles,Saxons And Britons to mathematics, compared to the mixed Gauls, Romans and Franks’ one .
    Many years ago while living with Arabs, I realised our word to tell the root of all mathematics, chiffre, came from the Arab and Hebrew word sefer, that means zero . Later, when digital things were advertised everywhere, I realised the English word was digit, from the Latin that means FINGER . It was a bit of a shock for me, imagining the Barbaric tribes trying to understand the meaning of this abstract notion, and using their fingers like kids still do .
    On the other hand, using the most abstract of all numbers ( the Greeks and Romans didn’t know it, it’s the millenariy wise Indians who taught it to humanity, then the Arabs taught it to us ) , using this most abstract concept to name all the conceptual category of digits showed a completely different approach .

    I don’t know if this has a causal relationship with the object of the question, but I find it funny, just like when traveling ,say in Asia, I meet US people and after they said they come from the USA, I wonder showingly ” USA, USA … Oh yes ! I know ! It’s the country between Canada and Mexico ! ”
    I love doing that one .

    • Well, the word “digit” in English comes from old French, so… :-)
      What you say here is interesting and true, but I don’t see how it could relate to the thumb vs index issue.
      Also, don’t forget, that in France we have more “remains” from the Celtic ways of counting (soixante-dix and quatre-vingt anyone?) than the English actually do, their way of counting seems to have been fully romanized.

      Actually, I’d be interested to know how Arabs count with their fingers. Do you know?

      • Our weird way of counting 70, 80 and 90 is not classical French . Belgians and Swiss, as well as some parts of French countryside still use septante,octante and nonante . I ‘ve no idea of why and when the strange way was chosen .
        The fact digit comes from Latin through old French doesn’t affect the fact Britannia chose the finger to express les chiffres . I suppose that’s what they did before the Norman conquest and they just translated it into the new language .
        But by 1066, contacts between the far more advanced Arab civilisation and primitive Europeans hadn’t occurred yet . This happened later with the Crusades . Europe discovered her Greek ancestors due to the Arabs, with the zero ( we took their digits ), architecture, medicine, chemistry ( Arab al-kemia ) and so many things .
        I would be tempted to say Arabs are so intellectual they never count with fingers, but itwould be a joke . The fact is I very barely saw an Arab using his fingers to count as we do . But when they do they do it like us, starting from the thumb .
        And thinking about that, I spent quite some time in India, the motherland of mathematics, and I don’t recall even one time when I saw an Indian using his fingers . But THEY are really abstract people, and they taught maths to the Arabs ..

        • -The way we say 60, 70, 80 and 90 comes directly from the Celts as they counted in base 20 and not base 10 like the Romans did. And it got all mixed up. (we find traces of it in the English language with terms like “score” (which originally -and still does at times- means “a group of 20″).
          Why did the Swiss and the Belgian totally embraced the base 10 way of counting I’m not sure. I assume it has to do with the Germanic influence. It could also be the reason why it has more or less disappeared in English too (just an assumption here, I don’t know much about the origins of Germanic languages).

          -Regarding the “finger/digit” thing, we agree. But I don’t see how it can be an explanation with the fact that the index is used for “one” when counting with your fingers and not the “thumb” (the thumb is a finger too, and English speakers are not the only ones counting with their fingers). :-)

          -In 1066 indirects contacts have been made between England and Arab civilizations, indirectly through France, which had had numerous contacts (peaceful and violent ones) with the Arab Caliphate in Spain. But you’re right, most contacts happened during the Crusades.

          -Counting with fingers in Arab countries and India. I have no idea about Indians, but I have seen Arabs count with their fingers, but I didn’t pay attention how they did it, and they were North Africans anyway, so heavily influenced by France.
          On the other hand, not many adult Westerners count with their fingers either. I only do it when it’s a number between 1 and 10 and I can’t be heard. ;-)

          • Frenchy I knew my comment didn’t explain the difference of use of the thumb . For sure, in England they didn’t consider the thumb as a finger like the other fingers, which is right, and they prefered using all of the same kind to avoid confusion and for a better view I guess . I find this more practical in fact .
            French mind is more abstract, so as the thumb is in classification a finger, we have to follow the idea of a finger rather than the physical convenience. It’s with this difference of mind orientation they could focus on the major overseas colonies, America and India, against their only rivals, the French .
            I have a nasty explanation too : as the English are closer to the animal stage, they didn’t realise yet they have a special prehensile finger.
            ” Give me four man ! ” .

          • I see. (yeah I had forgotten that some English speakers -the Brits?- are not aware that the thumb is a finger).

            Oh and: LOL

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