Twiddle one’s thumbs

  • The expression twiddle one’s thumbs is an idiom that came into use in the mid-1800s. An idiom is a word, group of words or phrase that has a figurative meaning that is not easily deduced from its literal definition. Common idioms are words and phrases used in the English language in order to convey a concise idea, and are often spoken or are considered informal or conversational. An idiom can illustrate emotion more quickly than a phrase that has a literal meaning, even when the origin of the idiomatic expression is lost. Many English as a Second Language students do not understand idiomatic expressions, as they attempt to translate them word for word, which yields only the literal meaning. In addition to learning vocabulary and grammar, one must understand the figurative language of idiomatic phrases in order to know English like a native speaker. We will examine the definition of the phrase twiddle one’s thumbs, where it came from and some examples of its use in sentences.


    To twiddle one’s thumbs means to engage in a time-wasting activity, to wait idly, to kill time while waiting for something to happen, to waste time. The literal meaning of twiddle one’s thumbs is to interlace the fingers and pass the thumbs over each other in a circling manner, repeatedly. Obviously, this action accomplishes nothing and only serves to busy idle hands in a mindless pursuit. However, one may twiddle his thumbs as a way to release anxiety, or as a test of manual dexterity. The word twiddle means to move something through your fingers in a mindless fashion. First used in the 1540s, the word twiddle is a portmanteau of the words twirl or twist, and fiddle. A portmanteau is a word that is composed by blending the sounds and the meanings of two different words. The figurative meaning of the term twiddle one’s thumbs was first used in the mid-1800s. Previously, the phrase twirl one’s thumbs had meant to wait idly or engage in a time-wasting activity. Related phrases are twiddles ones thumbs, twiddled one’s thumbs, twiddling one’s thumbs. Synonyms of the phrase twiddle one’s thumbs that may be found in a dictionary are wait, idle, bide.



    “Quite frankly, I was 28 years old when I worked on the Pill and the implication is always that I have twiddled my thumbs from age 28 to age 90.” (The Independent)

    Again, back to the those tough choices (luckily they gave me more of those cheese biscuits with butter while I twiddled my thumbs over the ever-changing dinner menu). (The Naples Daily News)

    That will be music to the ears of Cracksman’s owner-breeder, Anthony Oppenheimer, who has been twiddling his thumbs since his star colt was beaten in the Prince of Wales’s Stakes on fast ground at Royal Ascot in June (trainer John Gosden was equally inclined to blame Cracksman’s interest in the opposite sex that day). (The Telegraph)

    Also a keen vintage machinery enthusiast – Mr Goldsworthy’s collection can be seen opposite the State Highway 1 Raes Junction turn-off to Milton’s south – the 85-year-old retired truckie was ”twiddling his thumbs” about three years ago when he had an idea. (The Otago Daily Times)

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