A West Virginia hitchhiker working on a book tentatively titled The Kindness of America was apparently shot by a random stranger Saturday night. [Update, June 15, 2012: Dolin has now said that he shot himself, in what authorities believe was a desperate act of self-promotion.] The article in the New York Daily News featured a picture of an outstretched thumb. When did sticking your thumb out become the universal gesture for hitchhiking?
The 1920s. The first descriptions of hitchhiking are nearly as old as the first mass-produced automobiles, but it wasn’t long before hitchhiking developed an inextricable association with the opposable digit. Less than a decade after the introduction of the Ford Model T, poet Vachel Lindsay gave thanks to drivers who would pick him up along the road when he was tired, writing in 1916, “He it is that wants the other side of the machine weighed down. He it is that will offer me a ride and spin me along from five to twenty-five miles before supper.” Around the 1920s, those isolated travelers developed into a national phenomenon, and in 1923, The Nation described a new type of traveler known as “hitch-hikers.” (The word appeared in quotation marks, suggesting that it was still unfamiliar to readers.) While the Nation column makes no mention of thumbs, soon after, a 1925 article in American Magazine described how “[t]he hitch hiker stands at the edge of the road and points with his thumb in the direction he wishes to go.” By 1927 Printers’ Ink monthly was calling these hitchhikers “thumb-pointers,” the Maryland paper the Daily Mail was calling them “thumb-jerkers,” and the New York Times described travelers who (still in quotation marks) “ ‘thumb’ their way from coast to coast.” In 1927 two Boston University students were able to “ ‘Thumb’ Their Way to Chicago and Back,” but in one episode of the trip, they were “‘Out-Thumbed’ by Girls” who were able to cajole a driver out of “free meals as well as transportation.”
After the Great Crash of 1929, more and more Americans—not just adventurous students and youngsters—found themselves sticking out their thumbs in search of work and shelter. In perhaps the era’s most notable depiction of hitchhiking, the hero of John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, Tom Joad, is introduced merely as “the hitch-hiker” (though he uses the more straightforward method of asking, “Could ya give me a lift, mister?”) Those who didn’t hitchhike personally may have learned the practice from the movies. In It Happened One Night (1934), the character played by Clark Gable explains that he’s going to write a book about proper thumb technique, called The Hitchhiker’s Hail. He boasts:
It’s all in that old thumb, see? Some people do it like this. [He waves his hand quickly back and forth, like a “Hello.”] Or like this. [Another “hello,” but a long, sweeping motion.] All wrong. Never get anywhere. Yeah, boy, but that old thumb never fails.
The movie became a major hit, the first to win all five major Academy Awards, and by 1937 the scene had been parodied by both Laurel & Hardy and Looney Tunes. In 1938, perhaps to improve on Gable’s technique, two young men from Maine even constructed a mechanical thumb to do their thumbing for them.
Eventually, thumbing—as it was sometimes called—spread abroad. At first hitchhiking was considered to be strictly an American mode of transportation—a 1927 Glasgow Herald article described the word hitch-hiking as “the latest curiosity born out of the linguistic genius of the Yankee.” Then in the 1930s, Europeans, too, began sticking out their thumbs. In 1939, British novelist Nicholas Monsarrat had one character who “thumbed [his] way across England in a day-and-a-bit,” and in 1940 the London Times noted “the beseeching thumb” of the Registered Collegiate Thumbers. French travelers also got in on the act, though as the Los Angeles Times noted in 1938, in France, “Thumbing a ride is called auto-stop, and so far it has proved rather unsuccessful because of the few automobiles on French roads.” By 1980 hitchhiking was so popular in Europe that Greece’s entry in the Eurovision song contest was the hitchhiking anthem “Autostop,” and the accompanying dance routine involved the singer repeatedly sticking out her thumb.
While the thumb remains a recognized symbol of hitchhiking well outside the United States, there are some places where hitchhikers would be advised to use an alternative gesture. In Iraq a “thumbs up” means, traditionally, “Up yours!,” and the gesture can be similarly insulting in parts of West Africa, Russia, Australia, Iran, Greece, and Sardinia, according to Roger E. Axtell’s book Gestures: The Do’s and Taboos of Body Language Around the World. For Sardinian and Greek roadsides, hitchhiking advocates suggest “the loosely waved, flat hand gesture.” The same motion is suggested for hitchhikers in China, and in Morocco, the hitchhiking Wiki writes, “Hitchhiking is done by waving one’s index finger, but the thumb will often be understood as well.”
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Explainer thanks Ben Zimmer of the Visual Thesaurus and Vocabulary.com.