The Anglo-Saxons called it the “ear finger”. I’ll leave their meaning up to you! In Middle English, it’s the “little man”.
How we use the pinky finger when having a drink is fraught with controversy.
For some, extending the little finger is the height if refinement. For others, it’s the depths of snobbish affectation. Not to mention, femininity.
When Barack Obama was pictured sipping a craft beer with his little finger extended, twitter threatened to have his “Man card revoked”.
Here are some of the cockamamie stories and myths behind cocking up the little finger.
The Syphilis Finger
The “pinky up” position may be about sexual disease.
One commonly held belief is that the court of Louis XIV in 17th century Paris was so rife with syphilis that a symptom became a sign of the upper class.
One thing syphilis does is damage the joints of your fingers. After a few years, you are no longer able to bend your pinky finger.
When holding a glass or cup, your pinkie will point uselessly at the ceiling.
Extending the pinky may also have been a courtly sign to indicate one had syphilis (how civilized!).
The non-infected commoners aped the nobility.
It’s not so far-fetched.
Princess Alexandra of Denmark’s limp inspired a generation of Victorian ladies to limp around on mismatched shoes in the name of fashion.
Only the Medieval wealthy could afford to purchase salt and exotic spices, like nutmeg, at their tables.
While foods were eaten with one’s hands and a knife, both pinky fingers were extended.
They never touched food or gravy or sauce, being reserved as spice fingers.
Historian Madeleine Pelner Cosman describes Medieval feasting as
“elaborate, and often elegant, finger choreography…Dipped into the salt, sweet basil, cinnamoned sugar, or ground mustard seed, then raised to the tongue, the spice fingers displayed a feaster’s digital finesse while adding another sensual pleasure: touch of food’s texture.”
Diners frowned upon people who licked their fingers while sharing a plate with others — talk about bad manners!
Servants picked up the habit of keeping a “posh” finger extended while drinking and dining.
Anne Boleyn’s extra pinky finger
Anne Boleyn supposedly had an extra pinky finger which couldn’t bend, and copying her was fashionable.
Writing a few decades after Boleyn’s death, Catholic propagandist Nicholas Sander notes that the young queen
“…had a projecting tooth under the upper lip, and on her right hand, six fingers.”
He also describes her as having a “large wen [a boil!]under her chin”.
While a great story, it’s most likely untrue.
This slander may be something to do with Sander’s personal vendetta against Boleyn’s daughter, Queen Elizabeth I, whose religious policies forced him into exile.
Also, Sander never even saw Boleyn in person.
Some claim (and it’s recurs in Man in the Iron Mask) that because glasses had been handled by servants,the nobility wanted to handle them as little as possible.
Athos teaches Phillippe how to hold the glass like a king:
“Servants have touched the goblet of the King, therefore he will touch it as little as possible.”
Fingers of courtesy
The crooked, extended pinky may date back to the eleventh century crusades and the courtly etiquette of knighthood.
Since ancient Rome, the elite ate with three fingers, while the commoner ate with five.
The ring and pinky finger are known as the “fingers of courtesy.”
The ring and pinkie finger politely covered one’s mouth area, as the food was being ingested.
The pinky “up” movement may have evolved from a misinterpretation of the 3 fingers vs 5 fingers dining etiquette.
Can’t Handle It
Tea cups didn’t always have handles. Chinese tea bowls influenced the first European teacups.
At first, the English made cups without handles in the traditional Chinese style. Not until the mid 1750’s was a handle added to prevent the ladies from burning their fingers.
(In Victorian days, tea drinkers poured their tea into saucers to cool before sipping, this was perfectly acceptable.)
If you didn’t want your fingers to burn from the hot cup you would have as few fingers around the cup as possible.
Because imported tea was terribly expensive, the gesture lived on for centuries as an affectation of the rich and pretentious.
Why the Chinese don’t raise their pinky has never been properly explained.
Gently does it
Some claim a raised little finger lets you set it a cup down gently and thus avoid an uncouth clanking noise.
Queen Elizabeth I had forks for sweetmeats but chose to use her fingers instead, finding even the spearing motion to be too crude.
However, sticking your little finger out for the entire duration of a party just on the off-chance you might put your glass down seems a little overboard.
If this were the case, the rule would be “pinky down when putting cup down” rather than “pinky up when sipping!”
Sabre calluses apparently prevented Hussars from bending their pinkies while drinking.
Pretty soon everybody was copying the Hussars by drinking with their pinkies out.
On this forum, people are discussing Cossack’s sabres.
“Или что мода отставлять мизинец при питье из бокала пришла от донцев – они мизинцем так часто вынимали шашку, что он у них не сгибался, а потому, когда бокал брали, обхватить его мизинцем не могли.”
A reddit user’s translation: … that habit to set aside the little finger when drinking from the glass came from the Don Cossacs – they use little finger so often to take out his sword so it was hard to bend it.
Unfortunately, I couldn’t find any other reference to dashing Cossacks with protruding pinkies.
No-one seems to be able to put their finger on why we raise the pinky.
The question of whether it’s proper etiquette or not is easier.
I’ll bow to the stricture of Alexandra Messervy.
A former member of British Royal Household to Queen Elizabeth II, she says:
“when drinking tea you should hold the cup and saucer; with coffee, you can leave the saucer on the table, never hold your pinkie out, always inside.”
Siobhan is a freelance writer, research addict and lover of twisted history. If you like horrible but amazing history, check out her website www.interesly.com or Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/interesly. Or you can reach her through www.siobhanoshea.com.