12

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.

  • 1
    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 '14 at 22:48
  • @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 '14 at 20:08
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    I'm tempted to set up a bounty on this question for several reasons. First and foremost, I'm not convinced by the "falcon" explanation, the links posted by fuandon prove nothing. But if I post a bounty it would sound like sour grapes coming from me, and it's not. I just want to know if the expression really derived from falconry, I'd like to see some solid evidence, Wikipedia offers no citations to support its claim. – Mari-Lou A Dec 31 '15 at 9:43
  • @Mari-Lou: Although I ended up accepting fuandon's answer, I must admit I wasn't entirely satisfied. I upvoted your answer too - in particular because you provided all the evidence necessary to convince me that inclusion of the word little was in fact a "later embellishment". I still think it would be a bit perverse/unfair of me to ignore the current vote totals and switch my acceptance, but perhaps if I put a bounty on the Q and that causes more people to upvote yours (or even give a better answer), things might be different. (Does that make sense? :) – FumbleFingers Dec 31 '15 at 16:25
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    I'm only interested in knowing if the falconry origin can be proved, I'm not saying that falcons did not have a leash which was tied to their owner's gloved hand, I'm dubious as to whether the idiom derives from that practice. There are other things one could twist/twirl/wrap around a finger, such as a thread, a piece of string or even a bandage. – Mari-Lou A Dec 31 '15 at 19:31
5

One of the clearest early expositions of the meaning of the expression appears in a letter from a St. Louis, Missouri, hotel, dated November 18, 1835, printed in the [Springfield, Illinois] Sangamo Journal (November 28, 1835):

I wish you to watch the movements of A . G . H.--You know he never tires. What he lacks in talents, be makes up by industry and perseverance ; he is hard to head in a grocery or upon a corner[.] I wish you to keep an eye upon Stuart's big lion of the north. I fear him more than any man in my district ; for he supports four Presidents, and I only support one,—which gives him a great advantage over me. As for General Maxwell, I can spin him into wrapping thread, and wind him round my little finger. A good situation will place him on the shelf, or at least the promise of one.

To similar effect 30 years later is Charles Dickens, "Mrs. Lirriper's Legacy" (1864), in Christmas Stories from "Household Words" and "All the Year Round" (1868):

Not you see but what I knew I could draw the Major out like thread and wind him round my finger on most subjects and perhaps even on that if I was to set myself to it, but him and me had so often belied Miss Wozenham to one another that I was shamefaced, and I knew she had offended his pride and never mine, and likewise I felt timid that that Rairyganoo girl might make things awkward.

The image is thus of a tailor or seamstress drawing out a thread from his or her sewing work and wrapping that thread around a finger. This seems likely to reflect the way people in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries imagined the expression, given that sewing was a standard task during that era in households throughout the English-speaking world. Moreover, on the frontiers of North America, handiness with needle and thread was by no means a skill reserved for women only.

The earliest wordings of the descriptive image of figuratively wrapping, twisting, twining, twirling, or turning a person around one's finger seems to have occurred in the 1700s. In addition to the February 1780 Town and Country Magazine instance that Mari-LouA cites in her answer (which my Google Books searches did not turn up), the following instances are among the earliest.

Earliest of all is this one from a letter from William Stephens to Mr. Martyn dated November 25, 1743, in The Colonial Records of the State of Georgia, 1742–1745, volume 24 (1915):

The Scandalous reflection thrown at Mr. Parker, of his being drunk, is a vile falshood : for I do aver yt [that] there was not the least appearance of it during the time of his being in Town, wch was several days. Whether the Recorder was the Author of that Report, or Remington himself, remains yet a Question ; the Recorder Alledging yt he never said so to Remington, nor that Watson could wind Parker round his finger; & yt he was ready to swear twas all false : ...

(This match from 1743 and the 1809 match below from Mason Weems appear in Bartlett Whiting, Early American Proverbs and Proverbial Phrases (1977), the source from which I learned of them.)

From Hannah Hewit, Hannah Hewit: Or, The Female Crusoe. Being the History of a Woman ... who ... was Cast Away in the Grosvenor East-Indiaman: and Became for Three Years the Sole Inhabitant of an Island, in the South Seas (1792) [combined snippets]:

No man ever possessed these diabolical qualities in a stronger degree than Thomas Sourby; and, of course, no man could be more calculated to wind round his finger such an easy, vain, credulous creature as John Hewit.

From Charles Kemble, Plot and Counterplot: Or, The Portrait of Michael Cervantes; a Farce in Two Acts (1808):

Fabio. Oh, sir, you have no notion what an amiable creature I am when I set about it. Well, sir, this widow has been some years in the service of Hernandez's sister, Donna Clara, and, by a little of my advice, contrives to turn her round her finger. She told me the other day, that Donna Lorenza had requested her mistress to inform herself privately of the character and prospects of your rival ...

From Mason Weems The Life of General Francis Marion: A Celebrated Partisan Officer in the Revolutionary War (1809):

"I was never at a loss before," said he [a lieutenant serving under Marion], "to manage all other officers that were ever set over me. As for our colonel, (meaning Moultrie) he is a fine, honest good-natured old buck. But I can wind him round my finger like a pack-thread. But as for the stern, keen-eyed Marion, I dread him."

From Belle Assemblée: Or, Court and Fashionable Magazine (1821) [combined snippets]:

A gentleman, at a fashionable party, being asked by a lady his opinion of a beautiful ring she wore, in which was a very small miniature, and most striking likeness of her husband, observed, that he was no great judge of painting, and having seen Lord ——— but once, he was hardly competent to pronounce on the likeness; nevertheless, he was happy to see her Ladyship had a husband that she could turn round her finger.


Conclusion

The earliest written instance that I've been able to confirm of figuratively wrapping someone around one's finger is from 1743—an instance in which a letter writer in Georgia denies that "Watson could wind Parker round his finger." An 1809 instance offers additional context for the expression by saying "But I can wind him round my finger like a pack-thread."

The early instances of the expression that I found do not explicitly refer to hunting in general or to falconry in particular. Therefore, I think it most likely that the original intended image is of sewing thread being wound around one's finger for temporary storage pending future use.

With regard to the question of when a writer first specified that the little finger was the finger that the threadlike person was being wrapped around, I cannot find an earlier instance than the one Mari-LouA cites from Walter Scott, The Bride of Lammermoor (1819).

  • Between you, you and @Mari-Lou have convinced me that the idiom doesn't derive from falconry. I can't "accept" both answers, so I'm forced to make a choice here - and in the final analysis (assuming this is it!) it comes down to deciding whether I feel more "enlightened" by her the adjective, little, was added later as a flourishing touch or by your the original intended image is of sewing thread being wound around one's finger for temporary storage pending future use. They're both excellent, well-researched answers, but you have it by a whisker - or by a [thin] thread! :) – FumbleFingers May 19 '17 at 14:58
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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
Possibly a more credible source
Yet another source

  • 6
    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 '14 at 19:16
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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 '14 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 '14 at 22:25
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    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 '14 at 23:07
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    The links are from blogs written by people in the 21st century, who probably have, at one time or another read the Wikipedia page. I don't doubt for an instance that falconers can use a leash to tie their birds to their gloved hand, but the links prove nothing about the origin of idiom, they're just hearsay citations. – Mari-Lou A Dec 1 '15 at 8:24
6

If I had to guess, I'd say the idiom's popularity persists because the smallest finger in the hand is the most vulnerable-looking one, the one we 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 phrase 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.

wikipedia chart containing idioms inspired/derived from mediaeval England


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

Ngram chart shows the phrase "round her finger" is the most popular

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 mentioned falconry in any way, shape or form; e.g., "Like a falconer, she would wind him ..." Which sounds awfully suspicious, such a strong and powerful simile (and metaphor) must have been written 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]

Despite having found evidence that the idiom existed before the mid-19th century (1790), I found none dated 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 15th or 16th century English literature. I found none.

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 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.

close-up of a woman's finger twirling a lock of hair
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.

It appears highly unlikely an older version of the idiom with the embellishment—her little finger—exists.

UPDATE 07 May 2017

The aforementioned Wikipedia table which claimed the idiom “wrapped round his/her little finger” derived from falconry, has since been updated. The reference to the idiom has been deleted, alongside “hawked it up”, and “under his/her thumb”. None of these idioms had citations that confirmed their linkage.

Today the table looks like this:

Wikipedia Table listing only five, instead of eight idioms, derived from falconry

0

As an apprentice falconer I can verify two things about handling hawks, owls and falcons.On the glove you have the birds jesses(short leather/manmade) straps pulled and held under your thumb. The 18" or so tie out leash is then wrapped around the little finger as a secondary measure. Birds bait, which is flailing, getting upside down, or trying to fly. I can't vouch for the origins of the sayings however.

0

If you have someone "wrapped around your little finger" you've twisted them into the most contorted position possible.

The idiom "wrapped around your little finger" doesn't refer to having them "close to your heart", but rather having them under your complete control. Implying that you could twist them around your little finger is a figurative measure of that control.

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