This word makes me think of online polling, formal or informal – all those thumbs-ups (which, in a place like Facebook, can lead to useful cross-pollination). In fact, I could take it for the name of a polling company (like Pollara) or the charge card they put their expenses on (or the drug they take to deal with hay fever – sorry, that’s Pollinex). But you know it’s possible to push and pull with polling by expert pollution of the lexis; in a popularity poll of pollices, who polices the policies that, when you peel away the pixels, appal or appeal to hoi polloi?

Ah, push pollsters. I’d love to place those lickspittle pillocks on poles and express them out of the polis. But why pay the expense of the deportation? Let them thumb their way out of town, pollex by pollex on the turnpike.

So what is a pollex? Here’s another hint:

Jack Horner minor,
A corner-bound diner,
In pudding of Noel delighted;
Pollex introduced,
A gage he produced,
And thereby his goodness indited.

Indeed, that humble digital member, the toe of the hand (indeed its hallux), has this alternate name taken straight from the Latin unaltered. How important it sounds! Mark Mandel has marked it: “I’ve always wanted to write a story – preferably to be read aloud – specifically to include the line ‘He swore by Hallux and Pollex he would hang them’ – very painful indeed and quite possibly crippling, but neither a fatal punishment nor a godsbound oath.”

I find this a very stylish-looking word, that nice primped p in front, the clean o following, then the modernist or pin-stripe ll, and for a bit of variation the e; at last, that most eye-catching letter, x. And it starts with a clean pop of a /p/, runs through a tongue-tip liquid, then hits voiceless stop at the back and returns to fricative at tongue-tip. We will ignore just how similar it is to bollocks. Anyway, the plural of bollocks is not bollices (though the thought amuses me), but – in keeping with the Latin -ex pattern – the plural of pollex is pollices, because in English we just lurrrrve taking plural inflection undigested from soure languages.

Pollex is not a very frequently used word, to be sure, though Romance languages have cognates of it as standard. It happens, though, that as a I thumbed through the web looking for instances, I found that POLLEX is also the name of the Polynesian Lexicon Project, a website I shall surely return to to find out more about Gilbertese, Hawai‘ian, and most immediately Maori. Thumbs up for descriptive linguistics!

One response to “pollex

  1. Pollex does have something to do with voting — not with the etymology of ‘polling’, which simply means counting heads — but with Roman gladiators. There is a general idea that the emperor watching the fight would signal that the loser was to be spared or killed with a ‘thumbs up’ or ‘thumbs down’ signal, but this is an oversimplification.

    Before giving the order, a prudent emperor would look at the opinions of the audience, which were signalled with thumb gestures. Pollicem premere, to press the thumb, meant ‘spare him’; pollicem vertere, to turn the thumb, meant ‘kill him’. It is not certain what these gestures actually were, but it seems likely that the ‘pressing’ gesture for mercy was to hold up a fist with the thumb enclosed by the fingers, to symbolise sheathing a sword; and the ‘turning’ gesture for execution was to extend the thumb to represent stabbing.

    As to the latter, Quintilian, in his denunciation of gladiatorial combat (Declamationes majores 9) compared it to the cutting of a throat, though he may have meant the stabbing motion of a standing victor over his downed opponent, behind the left collarbone into the heart (you can’t stab someone through the ribs with a downward stroke, as any knife fighter will tell you). Furthermore, it is likely that the ‘turning’ gesture involved a hand movement and the ‘pressing’ gesture was done with the hand stationary, making it easy to distinguish them across a broad arena.

    Having surveyed the opinion of the audience, the emperor would then make one of these two gestures himself, and the loser would live or die.

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