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I've heard that "pull your finger out" came from muzzle loaded gunnery. One of the team firing the gun would put his finger in the hole during loading to prevent embers being ejected from the hole. When loading was complete, he would be ordered to pull his finger out.

But I can't find anything confirming this. Any ideas?

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  • its a way of telling someone to hurry up or get moving. Jul 25, 2014 at 4:35
  • No gunner would load a gun without first dousing the embers in the barrel! May 8, 2020 at 21:14

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I have been told it is originally British RAF slang, meaning "pull your finger out of your ass". I believe it refers to the fact that if you have your finger 'up your ass', you can't be doing what you are supposed to be doing, so should remove your finger and begin to act. I would say it is synonymous with "stop procrastinating!"

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  • Yes I've seen similar comments on the Internet but no real references are offered. I'd like to see some real references. Jul 25, 2014 at 4:36
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    I don't buy the "muskets/naval cannon" etymology (how come it never surfaced in print until WW2?), so this one seems good to me. An early reference I found is this 1937 "Come on you foreign bastard, get your finger out of your shirt-tails and get that rig down here", which to my mind strongly supports the "finger up one's arse/arse-scratching" origin. Jul 25, 2014 at 14:39
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    I use ass rather than arse (I'm British), but I don't know, I guess it may be some American influence then.
    – ZenLogic
    Jul 29, 2014 at 12:56
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    I would not say ass unless I was referring to a donkey, e.g. you are a lazy ass.
    – fireydude
    Mar 7, 2016 at 10:58
  • @FumbleFingers Yes. It certainly has an obscene origin. Didn't the D of E get criticised for using it, when he said to some city gathering at a time of economic crisis "Gentlemen, it is time we got our fingers out".
    – WS2
    Dec 16, 2021 at 21:38
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It appears there is no agreement on the origin of this expression. Here is what I have found:

Pull your finger out:

When you tell someone to pull your finger out, you are telling them to hurry up or to complete a task quicker.

  • This term derives from when artillerymen would push gunpowder into the ignition chamber of their guns with their fingers and hold the powder in place by keeping their finger in the hole of the ignition chamber

  • (Normally, a wooden plug would be used for this purpose, but it was quicker to use a finger.) Keen to fire the weapon, the gun commander would shout pull your finger out to the powder filler just before the gun was fired.

The following source offers two possible versions of the origin:

  • According to "A Dictionary of Catch Phrases American and British," by Eric Partridge, revised by Paul Beale, "take (or pull or get) your finger out" originated about 1930 in the Royal Air Force and was adopted in 1941 or 1942 by the British army. The first edition of Partridge's book had the meaning as "Stop scratching your backside and get on with the job." The revised edition, having been enriched by further scholarship, offers a different meaning as the accurate one. It has to do with couples rather than individuals.

  • To pull your finger out is to hurry, to get a move on. This is another nautical saying and comes from the times of the Men'o'War. When the cannon were loaded a small amount of powder was poured into the ignition hole near the base of the weapon. In order to keep the powder secure before firing, a crew member pushed a finger into the hole. When the time came for ignition, the crewman was told to pull his finger out

Source:http://www.grammar-monster.com/sayings_proverbs/pull_your_finger_out.htm

Source: http://www.answerbag.com/q_view/341797

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  • Again, hearsay and no references. Jul 25, 2014 at 4:37
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    This is an unlikely explanation on the face of it. Why would using one's finger be quicker than using a wooden plug? (Especially as the hand to which the finger was attached would then be unusable to perform other functions.) And given the high temperature of the barrel of an artillery piece once it has been fired a few times (especially once there were embers in the gun as per the OP's question), it would be impossible to do without frying one's finger. Even it was physically possible, the risk of getting one's finger or hand accidentally blown off using this technique would be considerable.
    – Erik Kowal
    Jul 25, 2014 at 5:23
  • @Eric Kowal - actually more then one source give the above explanation as the origin of the expression. I agree is may sound unlikely, even though we probably need an expert in artillery to confirm that. Anyway I have found another possible source which I am adding to my answer. Thanks for your comment!!
    – user66974
    Jul 25, 2014 at 5:39
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    @ErikKowal You are applying today's health and safety values to a time two centuries ago. The classical view of an old sailor is with one or more legs, arms, hands, fingers, or eyes missing. Finger blown off? Don't stand about, stick another one in!
    – user63230
    Jul 25, 2014 at 6:39
  • @andy256 - You mean like the Black Knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail?
    – Erik Kowal
    Jul 25, 2014 at 6:57
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While there seems little agreement on the source of the phrase, n-gram and Google Books would seem to provide a certain amount of reason to eliminate most claims. https://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?content=pull+your+finger+out&year_start=1800&year_end=2000&corpus=15&smoothing=3&share=&direct_url=t1%3B%2Cpull%20your%20finger%20out%3B%2Cc0 enter image description here gives a first usage of ~1875, which is far too late to support the naval origin. Starting in 1862, the Royal Navy began converting to breech-loaders (which obviously render the stated technique irrelevant), and by 1890 to 1900 naval artillery had universally switched to smokeless powder.

Examination of the Google Books excerpts associated with the phrase show no examples of the meaning "hurry up" prior to 1942, in agreement with the RAF slang origin.

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One method of managing haemorrhoids is to push the offending swollen veins back into the anus with your finger, and then, when they are all back in place, leave your finger in your anus and squeeze on it. The longer you remain like this, two or three minutes, say, the better the relief management of the painful and common ailment. The procedure should be performed after each bowel movement and at other times of discomfort, whenever the opportunity arises. Of course, haemorrhoids were quite prevalent amongst soldiers in WW1, probably caused by a combination of having to defecate very quickly, the long hours on their feet and living in the same wet and cold clothes, sometimes for many days-on-end. So, when half the platoon are sitting around (or standing) with their fingers up the proverbial, the Lance-jack would shout them all to "Pull your fingers out and fall-in!" So, if you can find any surviving serving infantry from WW1, you will be able to get confirmation of this.

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    Welcome to ELU! Do you have any links or internet research to support this?
    – Nicole
    May 12, 2015 at 18:38
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With respect to "very clearly sexual," I can only note that as an American living in Cambridge after university (in Cambridge, MA) in 1964-65, I heard the expression "pull [or get] your finger out" regularly. Not being familiar with it (in context it clearly meant to stop messing around and get to doing what you were supposed to do), I asked about it and was told "pull your finger out," originally - normally spoken by a woman to a man, clearly meant get that finger out and put the appropriate thing in!

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enter image description hereI remember seeing, many years ago, on a television programme called "Nationwide" (which was an early-evening news and features programme here in the UK), a feature about a cartoon character whose name I unfortunately can't remember. This cartoon character - and I'm talking about printed comic-book cartoons and not animated ones - was in the RAF (or was it the army?).

Anyway, he was an over-enthusiastic, careless, well-meaning but boneheaded member of the force, with a wide-eyed and toothy beaming expression on his face all the time; seemingly loving his job in the RAF/army but not being very good at it - in fact being terrible at it. And he was always getting into scrapes - you know, accidentally detonating explosives, over-inflating tyres, leaving the ammo store unlocked, driving off in reverse when he thought he was in first gear... you get the (cartoon) picture!

These comic book cartoons were - if I remember rightly - published by the government and distributed to the RAF (or was it the army?), and they were designed and intended to improve safety. In other words, you as a serviceman were supposed to see this idiotic buffoon get everything wrong and cause danger or damage to people or hardware, because he'd never listen to the full set of instructions before he dived in and eagerly started doing stuff. You can imagine a scenario where the wing-commander is instructing him: the wing commander says, "Right! Now we're going to learn how to remove the chocks from a Spitfire..." and buffoon guy says "Yes sir!" and just runs up to the plane in his uncontrolled, smiling enthusiasm and yanks the chocks away! The wing-commander yells out “NO NOT YET YOU FOOL! I HADN'T FINISHED!" because he obviously hadn't got to the end of the set of instructions... and watches in horror as the plane rolls down the airfield and into the river!

And this cartoon character (whatever his name was) would whenever he was given an instruction by his superior, get over-excited and over enthusiastic, and go straight for it… without waiting to listen to the whole set of instructions before commencing with this idiotic, exuberant, blunderbuss approach the task he’d been (not even yet) given.

Needless to say, the results of this character’s excited, cheerful desire to please were utterly disastrous, with people and property getting damaged. He was a cartoon character, contrived as an educational and salutary lesson to members of the force… how NOT to do things!

And whenever he was given a task, or had come up with an idea, he would point his big, over-sized index finger straight up in the air, and on his face would be a wide-eyed, smiling, goofy expression, as if he were saying, “AHA!” And once again, chaos would ensue, as he failed to listen to and follow the proper instructions, and consequently got everything wrong.

So this index finger, which would point straight up in the air as he realised with delight that another job or idea was to be carried out, would accompany his open-mouthed smile and his wide-open eyes as he thought to himself, “Yes! Another wonderful job to do!” And off he’d go with his boundless enthusiasm, driving a jeep straight into a tree or drilling through a wall directly into a water pipe.

And his index finger, pointing straight up in the air with his “AHA!” enthusiasm, became symbolic of someone showing a desire to get the job done. However catastrophic this cartoon character’s actions may have been… at least he wanted to complete the task; at least he approached it with eagerness and keenness. And when he felt inspired to do something, he’d open his eyes wide and beam uncontrollably, and stick his finger straight up in the air, as if to say “YES! I’ll do this!”

So if you were asked to do a job, and appeared reluctant, you’d be told to “get your finger out”! That would mean you were to show some enthusiasm, as this hapless cartoon character would do, as he pointed his finger straight up in the air and raced off into the task with misguided excitement.

Does anyone else remember this character?

I was told, on this television programme called “Nationwide”, that that is the origin of the phrase to “get your finger out”. I remember this very clearly.

Is it true? Can anyone verify this?

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    Nov 24, 2021 at 2:03
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The impact and effectiveness of this phrase is unambiguously and very clearly sexual in origin. The reference is obviously to heterosexual foreplay performed manually by the male partner before a female sexual partner is sufficiently stimulated and aroused to allow full penetrative intercourse. All this rubbish about cannons and early 60s cartoon characters is puritanical avoidance of issue and use of euphemistic metaphors. The shock value of the use of this term socially or publicly where use is by celebrties or royalty (e.g the late Prince Phillip) is precisely because it is derived from and refers to an explicitly intimate scene.

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    Dec 16, 2021 at 21:07
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    Welcome to ELU. OED disagrees with this answer, so corroboration for the assertion here would be valuable.
    – Andrew Leach
    Dec 16, 2021 at 21:24

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