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I was born and raised in South Africa. We frequently used the term "to suck out of one's thumb", implying that an answer was just a wild guess or the notion had no evidence but was rather just surmised. At best it was the product of a personal thought experiment.

Is the phrase used elsewhere? I live in the USA and almost never hear it. Do Americans understand it? Can they figure it out or will they conjure up graphic literal images of my thumb in my mouth?

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    I suspect that this is the same as the Dutch expression, common to standard Dutch and Afrikaans, and adopted into SA English? May 25, 2013 at 16:16
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    I've never heard it in the UK.
    – Colin Fine
    May 25, 2013 at 20:36
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    Interesting. We have that exact expression in Israeli Hebrew. May 26, 2013 at 12:30
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    I can confirm it is almost identical in Dutch 'iets uit zijn duim zuigen'. May 26, 2013 at 12:45
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    Wow, there's such an expression in Russian, didn't know it is so universal.
    – Malcolm
    May 26, 2013 at 20:59

10 Answers 10

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We have a vulgar version here in the US: "He pulled that answer out of his ass!"

A more innocuous version is "She pulled that answer out of thin air."

I have never heard the thumb expression.

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    I have heard the first one euphemized as "...out of his back pocket" But have never heard the "thumb" version.
    – TecBrat
    May 25, 2013 at 19:08
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    Also, "Just pulling an answer out of my hat"... never heard the thumb version, either.
    – ErikE
    May 25, 2013 at 21:32
  • Also, the acronym WAG (which stands for wild-ass guess), as in: "I think the project can be done in three months, but that's just a WAG."
    – J.R.
    May 25, 2013 at 21:57
  • @J.R., spooky! I was just thinking of that too! :-) May 25, 2013 at 22:01
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    @J.R.- also known as a PIDOOMA (Pulled it directly out of my ass)
    – Jim
    May 25, 2013 at 22:27
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That's interesting. This phrase, translated almost word-for-word (with simply finger instead of more specific thumb), is used in Russian, I wonder whether this fact has something to do with USSR—Africa relations…

In Russian it means not exactly wild guess, but that someone is trying to prove something and he doesn't have any really good arguments.

Also, seems that it is used in Hebrew. I don't know Hebrew, but I found this page.

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    The same is true for Czech language as well :)
    – Mifeet
    May 25, 2013 at 22:35
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    It's also used in german. I think this possible origin seems most logical and explains why it seems to be used in many languages: People tend to move their fingers to their mouth/chin when they are thinking (or in this case: making up 'facts'), this may look like they suck on them.
    – kapex
    May 26, 2013 at 2:19
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    I always find it amazing how seemingly random idioms exist in different languages—it's hard to believe that people can combine those random words in the same way to mean the same things in different languages. I mean, Russia, Germany and the Czech Republic are fairly close to each other, but… South Africa!
    – kirelagin
    May 26, 2013 at 11:56
  • @kirelagin: South Africa probably got it via the Dutch.
    – Jan Fabry
    May 26, 2013 at 12:12
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    This idiom is used in Polish, too (wyssany z palca). May 31, 2013 at 9:00
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It's a widely used expression in Dutch . Never heard it in English before, but it doesn't suprise me to hear it in South-Africa, given that much of the language there is strongly influenced by the Dutch that migrated there.

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    This makes most sense. Also there is the South African phrase "bite thumbs" for good luck, similar to how the British cross our fingers. Jun 4, 2013 at 11:25
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I have not heard this in the US. I did not understand its meaning until you explained it. I might say "He is talking through his hat" however.

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    I haven't heard that phrase used in conversation for 20 years, but I have read it in novels, and heard it back in the 70s, 80s, and 90s.
    – Warren P
    May 25, 2013 at 23:44
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    @WarrenP: Which phrase, the hat or the thumb? May 26, 2013 at 11:44
  • @WarrenP Where do you live? Which phrase have you not heard for the past 20 years?
    – Farrel
    May 26, 2013 at 17:15
  • Talking through your hat, heard conversationally in Ontario Canada, and northern us states. Not heard thumb phrase.
    – Warren P
    May 27, 2013 at 1:13
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Never, ever heard that one in the States. Someone had mentioned previously "Talking out his hat"; I do not believe this has the same connotation but is similar to "he's talking out his ass" - this equates with someone telling a tall tale. In the States "pulled that one out of thin air", "pulled that out their hat", "pulled that out his ass" or "pulled that out of their back pocket" sounds closer to what meaning has been described above. Even "that was a real shot in the dark" would seemingly be closer but does not infer that they necessarily came up with the correct answer.

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There's a similar expression in UK english - "thumb/finger in the air". It alludes to sucking one's finger and holding it in the air to determine the wind direction. It implies a very rough guess,

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  • I've seen that gesture before, just never heard it said aloud. May 25, 2013 at 19:40
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    I see this a little bit different. Pulling an answer out of one's hat (or thin air) means providing an answer. The gesture of wetting a finger to get wind direction would happen just beforehand – it implies the answerer is "getting data" (i.e., wind conditions) so they can make an "educated" guess.
    – J.R.
    May 25, 2013 at 21:55
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My guess that this phrase was using worldwide. And the story behind this could be the method to define the wind direction. Suck the finger, put it in the air and try it yourself

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    But you don't suck your finger, you lick it. So, your guess was just sucked from a finger.
    – kirelagin
    May 26, 2013 at 12:06
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I just heard it recently, and it was from a South African. I thought it was a reference to having learned the facts surrounding the answer as a child, meaning ""This has been accepted wisdom for me since I was taught this as a child, and I'm not just making it up".

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In Russian "sucking something out of one's finger" means arguing with very little (miniscule) proof; but proof nonetheless. Whereas most English examples brought here, "Talking through one's hat", "pulling something out of thin air", etc implies either ignorance or absence of proof whatsoever.

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It doesn't seem to be used in contemporary English, but the phrase

I suck't not this out of my fingers ends

appears in John Ray's Collection of English proverbs dating to 1670

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