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I just had occasion to write she's got him wrapped around her finger (under complete control).

I'd never really thought about this one before, but my guess would have been the idiom had some connection to wedding rings. On the other hand, intuition (and a Google Books search) tell me that the expression usually involves a little finger - not normally associated with wedding rings.

Does anyone know when/why the idiomatic usage arose? I can't find anything in OED or a cursory search online.

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To me, the phrase "wrapped around one's (little) finger" has more to do with feelings of affection (the owner of the finger is doted upon by the person wrapped around that finger) than of control per se. Certainly not forcible dominance by the finger owner, which is what is implied by "(falcon) under one's thumb" where the force required may be small, but it's still required. In the little finger case, the doter is wrapping himself around the dotee's finger, willingly and happily, not trying to get away. –  John Y Jul 18 at 22:48
    
Um, why downvote? What part of "does not show any research effort; it is unclear or not useful" applies to "this question"? –  Daniel Jul 20 at 1:04
    
You HAVE to upvote my answer now! How can you ignore my findings? :)) –  Mari-Lou A Aug 30 at 18:30
    
@Mari-Lou: Indeed! I think I was originally over-influenced by the falconry origins of under one's thumb (which I wasn't aware of until reading fuandon's answer here). I think it would perhaps be a bit perverse/unfair for me to actually switch my "accept" vote (if that's even possible), particularly with the current vote totals as they are, but the truth is I'd probably have accepted your answer if you'd originally posted it in its present form. (Nice bit of background research! :) –  FumbleFingers Aug 30 at 20:08
    
That's fine about the "accept" vote. I'm really pleased (and relieved) you think my answer has some validity. –  Mari-Lou A Aug 30 at 20:10

2 Answers 2

up vote 12 down vote accepted

The most common theory I can find seems to be that the phrase came about from medieval falconry, along with "under her thumb". Both seem to refer to practices people used to keep the birds from flying off.

  • When a bird lands on your hand, simply put your thumb over their claws to keep them from flying away. (You've got them 'under your thumb')
  • In some cases they have a leash tied to the bird's feet. When the falcon lands on their arm, they wind the slack in the leash around their little finger in an attempt to keep them from flying away. (You've got them 'wrapped around your little finger')

Some more common falconry terms include 'fed up', 'hoodwinked', and 'haggard'

Source
Other Source
One More Source

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5  
That's a good start, thank you. I did realise that falconry (along with other "defunct" things like jousting and heraldry) has contributed a number of idiomatic usages to English where the original sense is largely unknown to later generations of speakers, so I'm quite willing to go with this one. But let's wait and see. –  FumbleFingers Jul 18 at 19:16
    
I have reached out to a local bird of prey centre for confirmation of this. They had already taught me the origin of several of the terms in the first cited source, so I'm hopeful of a reliable answer one way or another. –  user78469 Jul 18 at 20:25
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@ClickRick I was told several years ago the same origin for "under the thumb" and "around the finger" by a falconer. That was actually in Dutch. We have both idoms in Dutch, but "around the finger" is very rare and we ALWAYS just mention "a finger", never indicate which one). –  Tonny Jul 18 at 21:44
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@Tonny Danish has the expression too, but always specifies the little finger—and always uses the verb meaning ‘wrap’ that describes coiling something thin and string-like around something (sno), rather than any number of verbs that mean wrapping something around something in other senses, like gift wrapping (indpakke) or wrapping a scarf around your neck (vikle). –  Janus Bahs Jacquet Jul 18 at 22:25
    
Howard: "You can't tell a falcon when to hunt." Leonard: "Yes, you can. There's a whole sport around it. It's called 'falconry'." –  Malvolio Jul 18 at 23:07

If I had to guess, I'd say the idiom's popularity persists because the smallest finger in your hand is the most vulnerable looking one, the one we tend to use the least and the one we pay least attention to. Consequently, a woman who wraps somebody (the "victim" is usually a man) around her little finger, suggests that despite her seemingly meek nature and modest physical strength, she is powerful enough to bend and manipulate a man at her will.

The American Heritage provides this information on the idiom

Twist around one's finger
Also, turn or wind or wrap around one's finger. Exert complete control over someone, do as one likes with someone, as in Alison could twist just about every man around her finger.
This hyperbolic term dates from the mid-1800s.

The date, mid-1800s, seems to contradict the belief that this idiom originated in medieval England. Try as I did, I could not find any confirmation, although Wikipedia supports the falconry parentage it fails to provide any specific dates.

enter image description here


Trivia: Interestingly, the little finger in medieval times was known as the auricularis, or 'ear-finger' from its use for cleaning the ears.

The Senses in Late Medieval England


I was finding it difficult to find any recorded evidence before the late 19th century, so I changed my criteria. I searched for the terms: around her finger, round her little finger, around her little finger, and round her finger and limited the time scale between 1750 and 1920.

Ngram Results

enter image description here

And came up with the following:

1826 Head-pieces and tail-pieces, by a travelling artist by Leitch Ritchie

She was the light of her father's eye, and the pride of his heart, and so complete was her dominion over his affection, that, in the common phrase, she could have turned' the old man round her finger.

1780 The Town and Country Magazine, Or Universal Repository of Knowledge, Instruction and Entertainment

<<

Most of the limbs of law do everything in a jiffy; but ask what they mean, and they would be as much puzzled, [...] if such gibberish were confined to hackney clerks of twelve shillings a week, we should not notice it (...) but the misfortune is, by degrees it has found its way into more polite assemblies, and a lady of taste was heard to say the other evening at the Pantheon, that she could turn Sir William B_____ round her finger in a jiffy. If people of sense or common understanding, would reflect one moment on the folly of using words and phrases they could not explain, they would certainly explode them, and shun those who used them, as being afflicted with a verbal contagion, ...

Conclusion and Summary

Not one excerpt I sifted through mentioned falconry in any form or shape e.g. "Like a falconer she would wind him round her finger" Which sounds awfully suspicious, such a strong and powerful metaphor must have been written down at least once! And yet I didn't find any evidence to support the theory that the idiom derives from a falconer's practice.

If we revisit the Wikipedia page on falconry we learn

In the UK and parts of Europe, falconry probably reached its zenith in the 17th century, but soon faded, particularly in the late 18th and 19th centuries, as firearms became the tool of choice for hunting (this likely took place throughout Europe and Asia in differing degrees). Falconry in the UK had a resurgence in the late 19th, early 20th century during which time a number of falconry books were published. [emphasis mine]

I have found evidence that the idiom existed well before the mid-19th century (1790) but none dating back to the 17th century or earlier. If this idiom really had origins in Medieval England, as a few have proposed, there would be some trace in English 15th or 16th century literature. I didn't find any.

I put forward that the metaphor began life as "to wind/turn/twist/ someone round one's finger" the adjective, little, was added later as a flourishing touch.

Furthermore, I suggest a far more logical and simple analogy as to how this idiom arose. When a young lady sees a man that fascinates or intrigues her, one of the tell-tale signs that betrays her interest is the twirling of a lock of hair usually around her index finger. The little finger's position and its limited dexterity makes this action highly unlikely.

enter image description here
Image from wikiHow

Several modern online guides confirm this subconscious behaviour:

However, fiddling with hair is also another non-verbal body language that can signify different things in different situations. For example, hair twirling can signify interest and desire. Women in particular are noted for hair twirling when talking to someone that they’re attracted to
Body Language Expert

Wrapping the hair around a finger is a gesture that mimics the innocence of childhood and is often used as a flirtation device.
Net Places

"Twisting" in 19th century


1819-1820 The Atheneum, or, Spirit of the English Magazines

1813 Memoirs of Prince Alexy Haimatoff


UPDATE 11/11/2014

One of the earliest versions of the idiom that mentions her little finger is from a collection of book reviews from a journal called Saturday Review: Politics, Literature, Science and Art The article is dated December 25 1869, which more or less confirms The American Heritage's—the mid-1800s. The book being reviewed is Guy Vernon by Mrs. Woulfe

Here basil Ricketts, sees a certain Miss Julia Manners, who is of course bewitchingly lovely, as they all are in this book: falls in love with her at first sight, as she with him; after the third interview proposes, is accepted, calls her "dear" and "darling," folds her to his heart, and kisses her; which is pretty well for a virtuous English girl left for a few weeks to her own guidance by a father who idolizes her, and whom she has no reason for deceiving, seeing that she can wind him round her little finger at her will. But the author evidently thinks that a few kisses and sweet words from a man to a woman are more potent than the restraints of reason, modesty, or truth; ....

The expression "at her will" expresses clearly the influence and "power" Julia Manners holds over her father, who, the journalist observes, worships her like an idol.

However, the earliest version I found is dated 1819 from The bride of Lammermoor by Sir Walter Scott.

I thank ye, Craigie, and pledge you—I see nothing against it but the father or the girl taking a tantrum, and I am told the mother can wind them both round her little finger.

I doubt very strongly there exists an older version of the idiom with the expression her little finger. But I will try again.

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Yes, I will write a description for these images. –  Mari-Lou A Nov 11 at 17:40

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