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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. – Jason Lewis Jul 25 '14 at 4:35
  • No gunner would load a gun without first dousing the embers in the barrel! – Kate Bunting May 8 '20 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. – Jason Lewis Jul 25 '14 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. – FumbleFingers Jul 25 '14 at 14:39
  • 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 '14 at 12:56
  • I would not say ass unless I was referring to a donkey, e.g. you are a lazy ass. – fireydude Mar 7 '16 at 10:58
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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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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. – Jason Lewis Jul 25 '14 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 '14 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 '14 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! – andy256 Jul 25 '14 at 6:39
  • @andy256 - You mean like the Black Knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail? – Erik Kowal Jul 25 '14 at 6:57
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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 '15 at 18:38

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