I came across the phrase “His cheeks reddened as he curled up his fingers” in the scene, a six-year-old Ruthenian boy, Lubji Hoch, who later becomes one of the world’s most powerful media moguls, tries to buy an expensive brooch for his mother with small changes at a jewelry shop in Jeffery Archer’s novel, “The Fourth Estate”- P.35:

“The old man didn’t laugh, but gently explained to Lubji that he would need many more coins than that before he could hope to purchase the brooch. Lubji’s cheeks reddened as he curled up his fingers and quickly turned to leave.

What does it mean to “curl up one’s fingers”? I curl in (or inward) my fingers to sqeeze my hand, but I don't think I can curl up my fingers backward without being forced?

Is “curl up one’s fingers” an idiom or cliché to describe special emotions such as an extreme tension or embarrassment, or just a plain description of a bodily reaction?

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    It simply means "closed his hand." In this case, apparently he was showing the coins in his hand, and once he had been embarrassed by not having enough, he closed his fingers over the coins. Your reading of the phrase as curl UP, as if his fingers were going in an "upward" direction, is not what is meant. "Curl up," when used with fingers, always means to curl them in the normal anatomical direction. – John M. Landsberg Apr 16 '13 at 1:51
  • I understood. But I'm curious to know why you don't say 'curl your fingers in,' not 'curl your fingers up' or simply 'close your hand / fingers'? – Yoichi Oishi Apr 16 '13 at 2:01
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    I think "up" here is in the same sense as "to wrap up" or "to finish up" - i.e. the idea of completing something. He curled his fingers until they could curl no more - they were completely curled up. – Jeffrey Kemp Apr 16 '13 at 2:17
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    @JeffreyKemp Jeff, I think that's right. And, Yoichi, what you are asking about pertains to creative choice. Writers may attempt to achieve different effects by choosing different ways of saying essentially the same thing. If you write, "He curled his fingers up into a ball and pounded his fist into his other hand," you get something very different from, "He curled his fingers in a little before the pain in his joints stopped him." And there are about a million other things you could write using various arrangements of those and other similar expressions. – John M. Landsberg Apr 16 '13 at 6:18
  • @YoichiOishi - We don't say "curled in" because it isn't idiomatic. "to curl up" is an existing phrasal verb. – chasly - supports Monica Jul 26 '15 at 21:08

Note that curl up is a phrasal verb, and means to curl tightly (or fairly tightly). ODO does not make the distinction clear, and OED only mentions it in passing:

curl v
3 a. To bend, twist, or coil up into a spiral or incurved shape; to make curls or undulations upon (a surface); to ripple (water). Often with up.

coil v
3 c. to coil up  : to twist into a fixed or constrained position.

"Curled up his fingers" is not quite the same as "curled his fingers up": in the latter, the fingers end up pointing upward; in the former, they simply end up curled. Compare "curled his fingers down".

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