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Under the thumb?

[ 2011-02-18 13:08]     字号 [] [] []  
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Under the thumb?

Reader question:

Please explain “under the thumb” in this passage (China’s leaders nod to the left, but look anxiously to the right, The Economist, February 3, 2011):

Forcing people out of their homes by cutting off utilities or road access is banned. Courts are to settle disputes...The rules do not apply to evictions from rural land, where most disputes occur. In such cases, even more than usual, the courts are under the thumb of local governments.

My comments:

It means dominance, total control.

In the absence of an independent judicial system, courts are often told by local governments what to do – whether a defendant is guilty or innocent – sometimes with wanton disregard to legal evidence.

In other words, local courts and governments are pressured to come to politically correct verdicts.

That is to say, the so-called “stability is paramount”.

Anyways, this is what it is. That is, do not let the situation stop you from learning another good phrase – under the thumb.

A nice nimble little phrase it is too, don’t you think?

Two interesting theories as to its origin, which Dictionary.com says dates to the 16th century (To be under (someone’s) thumb “be totally controlled by that person” is recorded from 1586).

One theory points to ancient Rome, where gladiators were thrown into an arena to fight other gladiators or, for better or worse, tigers and lions. It is said at the end of some such spectacles, the fate of the gladiators was to be decided by the spectators. If the spectators liked a gladiator’s performance, they’d give him a sign of “thumb up”, raising their thumbs upward. This means the gladiator would live – to fight another day. On the other hand, if the audience did not like his performance, they would give him the “thumb down” sign, by pointing their thumbs downward. This means death for the gladiator.

Hence, the fate of the gladiator is “under the thumb” or at the mercy of the spectators.

Another theory, equally interesting and perhaps no less disturbing, points to old England, when, in days long gone by, husbands were permitted by law to beat their wives with sticks, so long as the sticks were no thicker than the husband’s thumb. Hence, if a wife went “under the thumb”, she was under the discipline of the stick holder. In other words, she was administered a beating by her husband.

Or, domestic violence in today’s language.

Oh well, good thing that this practice is something long gone by. Today, in a quaint reverse of fortune, many husbands actually find themselves under the thumb of their wives. This example, from GlamourMagazine.co.uk (Russell Brand: ‘I’m under the thumb’, November 12, 2010):

Oh dear - could there be trouble in paradise already for newlyweds Russell Brand and Katy Perry? Brand told reporters that he already feels “under the thumb” just weeks into his marriage.

The British comedian said that the couple had already begun to behave like a stereotypical husband and wife. Talking on ITV1 chat show Loose Women said: “It was like a normal wedding. Everyone gets all worked up about show business and celebrity but ... it was just normal.

“It’s just a normal marriage. The other day I put a shirt on, we're getting ready to go somewhere, and she went ‘you’re wearing that shirt are you?’

“I thought, that’s actually happening. That’s a thing off a sitcom. That happened in my actual life. I wasn’t allowed to wear it.”

Brand, 35, married Perry, 26, in a lavish October wedding ceremony conducted by a Hindu priest in India.



About the author:

Zhang Xin is Trainer at chinadaily.com.cn. He has been with China Daily since 1988, when he graduated from Beijing Foreign Studies University. Write him at: zhangxin@chinadaily.com.cn, or raise a question for potential use in a future column.


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(作者张欣 中国日报网英语点津 编辑陈丹妮)