Apr 252011

(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.

More Questions Answered:

  43 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).

    • 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)

    • 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.

        • Actually, that’s a popular misconception. Thumbs up was, in fact, the kill signal. When a gladiator was to be spared, the crowd closed their fists and pressed their thumbs down on their index fingers.

        • I only mention this because in much of the world, a thumbs-up is considered a grievous insult; in Italy, right up until WWII, the thumbs-up was regarded as an aggressive gesture, probably deriving from the aforementioned Roman custom. It was American GIs - either misunderstanding or purposely conflating the meaning of the gesture - who brought the thumbs-up back to the States as a positive gesture when they returned from the war.

          This makes me wonder if the habit of beginning counting using our index finger was adopted from a country where the thumbs-up gesture was considered insulting or obscene. After all, we wouldn’t start counting here in the States by raising our middle fingers, not only because it isn’t practical, but also because we wouldn’t want to inadvertantly insult someone nearby.

          • Thanks for the extra info (do you have more details about the gladiator thing, I’m interested).

            It could be why, the thumbs up is not used in some cultures (esp. Anglo) for counting. Maybe something to do with the Celts, or the Angles?

            Mmmm… Not the Celts. I think I heard that they had a very different way of counting with their fingers, they math system being base 20 and all.

          • Not a whole lot. My interest in ancient Rome is more that of a hobbyist than a scholar/expert. I know it was a professor from the University of Kansas who researched and confirmed the thumbs-up kill gesture. Apropos for this website, it was a medallion he found in southern France - dating from the second or third century - that provided some of the strongest evidence. It pitcures two gladiators who just finished fighting. Nearby is a referee making the gesture with his thumb pressed against his closed fist, and the inscription reads, “Those standing should be released”.

          • Thanks Randall for that extra info.

  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).

      • Ah Frenchman - I do adore your comments!

        I don’t understand why people think that Anglo and French cultures are the same - it’s like lumping America and Australia together.

        • Well, it really depends what aspect of the cultures we’re talking about.
          While Britain and France are extremely different in many aspects, we do basically share the same history, which makes us closer than many other countries)

  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

      • After the Norman invasion, French became the language used by the upper classes, wealthy and snooty types, saxon was for the peasants and serf classes. As a result most of the words in the English language (80% I believe) are French, this makes learning a whole lot easier…..just those pesky verb conjugations to tackle

  6. What an important topic, haha.

    I just wanted to add that in Norway, we also start counting with our thumb, usually on the right hand. (It’s like we’re writing backwards, except we’re not writing. )
    Pointing at someone is rude, while pointing at things and animals is fine. When being in a bar/club, it’s normal to hold up the index finger, to show the bartender that you would like a beer. So we do use the index finger to show a ‘one’.

    • Well, I need to find a right balance between heavy topics and more futile ones.

      Thanks for your feedback, I wish we had more input from various countries at times, so feel free to pitch in anytime you feel like. After all, I don’t know much about Norway, I need to find new ways to mock your country as the only thing I had was “not wanting to be part of the EU” and it is switching from an object of mockery to an object of envy these days. (seriously, I’d like to know more about Norway, to actually know stuff about Norway, not just for joking purposes).

      • Haha to your EU-comment.

        Feel free to mock my country. I, myself, am a fan of irony and sarcasm, so bring it on!

        Since I’m in a good mood, I’ll give you some stuff to mock us for, for free.
        1) There’s hail today, in May!!
        2) It sometimes can be cheaper to fly to London and back, for instance, than to take a trainride for one hour here. Madness!
        3) According to the UN, Norway is the best country to live in; http://theforeigner.no/pages/news/un-says-norway-still-best-place-to-live/ However, there are some serious flaws to out healthcare system. In some areas, there’s not enough knowledge nor the desire to learn. For exemple, they never found out what made/keeps me sick, so I went to a Belgian doctor, and he found all of these objective findings, and started treating me, at my own expense.

        At least we don’t do weird stuff with out fingers.

        Well, that was enough for one day, I guess..

        If there’s anything specific you’re wondering about, just ask me. Maybe I should start up an “Ask a Norwegian”-blog, hehe. Or maybe not..

        • LOL.
          I knew the UN could be full of shit at times, but Norway best country to live in? Seriously? Isn’t the warmest it ever gets about 12 degrees? And you get what? 20 days of daylight a year?

          No, sorry, although all of the (very few) Norwegian people I have met were very cool, I don’t think I’ll ever set foot in your country, unless there’s a heatwave hitting it… In that case, I’d be very glad to go and visit it. I may even be able to leave my coat and gloves at home.

          I don’t have any specific question, but I know this blog tends to be very “France compared to the US” oriented. It’s for two reasons: 1. The vast majority of the readership and the people asking questions are Americans. 2. It happens to be the foreign country I know the best, having lived there for a big chunk of my adult life, having worked with Americans and having studied its culture for most of my adult life.

          But truth is, I’d love to have more input from other countries, so I encourage non-American and non-French readers to comment more and give us their take on the discussed issues as much as possible.

          • There are so many things I could reply to your comment..
            So your definition of a good country is based solely on temperature? Whatever happened to economy, nature, people etc.?

            Regarding the weather, we’ve had some bikini-/men capris days already this year. A typical Norwegian summer temperature, down south, is between 20 and 30*c, and some days are warmer than that. It goes without saying, that it’s not that warm on top of the mountains.

            It’s a common misconception among the uneducated, that there’s no daylight in Norway, apart from some days. Here, in the south, we’re so lucky to have daylight 365 days a year. Can you imagine??

          • No my definition of good country isn’t solely based on weather, but it’s an important factor that could help sealing or killing the deal.
            I sincerely didn’t know it could get that warm in Norway, I mean even Scotland rarely gets above 25.

            I was kidding about the daylight thing (just in case )

  7. @Frenchman: It can get hot, but we do have short summers, unfortunately. Luckily, we’ve got the saleries to go to hotter places on vacations, being the best country to live in, and all.

    I was hoping you were joking, for your sake.

  8. Bonjour!
    When we got back from the Etats-Unis 2 years ago, my daughter counted the “american” way, now she counts like a Frenchie, starting with her thomb #mutant

  9. In Indonesia, people from Javanese origins also point with their thumb as a sign of politeness. Using your index finger, especially in the present of older people or respectable ones, is considered inappropriate gestures. But we start counting by index finger though..)

    • Thanks for your input Jeffry,

      The way we use our fingers and hands in every culture is fascinating. I wish I could learn the reasons why certain gestures are done or not done here and there, but I’m afraid most of them date back to the dawn of time.

  10. As far as counting starting with the index finger or thumb, I was wondering about a few of the other European countries. I spent a month in Europe but at least 2 weeks in France so I became accustomed to their way of doing things. I remember the first time I walked into a restaurant in Paris and the waiter said “Une personne?” while sticking his thumb up. For a second it looked a little rude to me, but then I realized where I was. Fortunately I know a fair amount of French, so I able to escape the dreaded “stereotypical American” curse.

    • And how did they count in other European countries?

      Also, don’t be mistaken, a lot of Americans think that the “Stereotypical American curse” has to do with them not speaking French. Not at all. It’s ok to not speak the local language when you travel. What is not ok is to assume that people will understand your own language, regardless of whether they do or not.

  11. I have to admit that even though I have only lived in France for a year and a half I only point with my thumb and I start counting with my thumb now as well, and if I am indicating a person I use my whole hand open…if you get the image…it is just more polite

 Leave a Reply



You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>

Notify me of followup comments via e-mail. You can also subscribe without commenting.