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It was a thumbs up on the new filtration plant at Thursday's village board meeting

This is so common but then I never thought too deep unless I became a fan of English language after joining this site!

  • Is thumbs up actually (your) thumb is up? But then why thumbs? And not thumb's up - thumb is up (for this matter)?

  • Is thumbs up actually everybody's thumbs up? But then why not thumbs're up?

  • In above-mentioned case, it says a thumbs up. The article a?

Okay, while doing thumb(s)-up, you don't do it with both the thumbs but with one. So, it's actually thumb's up!

  • Okay, the Coca-Cola brand in India is Thums-Up. – Maulik V Dec 4 '13 at 9:25
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    No, it's not actually "thumb's up". It's still "[a] thumbs up", even if you only do it with one thumb. – snailplane Dec 4 '13 at 10:13
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    Side note: some of these use a hyphen, but none of them use an apostrophe. Cool question, though; I give it a thumbs-up (a.k.a. "upvote"). – J.R. Dec 4 '13 at 12:16
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    It’s not a phrasal statement, it’s the set name of a gesture. In the same fashion, we say “they gave each other a fist bump,” not “ . . . fist’s bump” or “ . . . fists’ bump.” – Tyler James Young Dec 4 '13 at 17:18
  • If something is really satisfying, you can even give a double thumbs up. – Damkerng T. Dec 6 '13 at 6:53
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+100

I searched a bit more and found some interesting information which might give us some clues why we use "thumbs up" (with an 's'), not "thumb up".

Gestures: Their Origin and Meanings, who uses the term The Thumb Up in the article and also provides a few images that clearly shows "The Thumb Up", seems to suggest that the term was originally used in Rome, but it seems to signal death, e.g.

Dixon, 1896: 'To turn the thumbs up. To decide against. The Romans in the amphitheatre turned their thumbs up when a combatant was not to be spared.'

So according to such use, the "thumbs" should refer to those thumbs of people who are in the amphitheater.

However, this is not the only theory for this "thumbs up" gesture. You can find many proposed theories of its origin in Wikipedia, which states "The source of the gesture is obscure, but a number of origins have been proposed."

For example, this web page says,

The thumbs up sign is most commonly (but wrongly) thought to descend from gladiatorial contests in which the audience determined whether the combatant was eligible to live or die by a thumbs up/ thumbs down vote. But there are other theories. There is a old English saying ‘Here’s my thumb on it!’ which was used to seal a bargain. The two people involved each wetted a thumb and then extended it, held upwards, until the two raised thumbs came into contact with one another. It is easy to see how this custom could lead to, or support the idea of holding out a raised thumb as a sign of friendly agreement or approval. The signal has also been used by some ape species, who may just be celebrating the fact that they, like we, have opposable thumbs in the first place.

Again, it seems that there are more than one person involved in the act up this use of "thumbs up".

Considering these two convincing alternatives of thumbs up's origin, it's quite plausible that it was originated with the plural thumbs indeed.

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4

(One) thumb up (used as a gesture) = you are generally showing your approval; you are expressing happiness or wishing someone good luck.

(Two) thumbs-up (as in the expression) = an agreement or approval; or a great success; or even a manifestation of one's happiness.

a reaction that shows you like something such as a plan or idea, or that you will accept it

Note that many online dictionaries spell thumbs-up with the hyphen. This is something I hadn't noticed until I began researching. Hyphens are normally used in compound nouns and verbs, but nowadays the trend seems to be declining and many will either leave spaces or combine the two or more words into one word.

Thumbs up is therefore a compound noun, and as a result you can use it with the indefinite article. It looks plural but the meaning is singular. It means a strong and (sometimes) very enthusiastic approval.

There is also the idiom; (give a) thumbs up to somebody or something

to show approval of or support for someone or something "Voters gave a thumbs up to building swimming pool for the town". Usage notes: often used in the form give the thumbs up (to something): "We have been given the thumbs up and will begin work next week".

enter image description here

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1

There is a gesture which consists of pointing with both thumbs upward. The phrase "the thumbs up" is the name of this gesture. As such, it is not really divisible into "thumb" and "up". We can think of it as having a long name "the well-known two thumbs up gesture", "the thumbs up" being is its popular nickname. Moreover, that "thumbs up" is a category representing manifestations of that gesture, so that we have "a thumbs up" ("an instance of the two thumbs up gesture").

My assistant gave me the thumbs up, indicating success.

= My assistant gave me the well-known two thumbs up gesture, indicating success.

Several spectators gave me a thumbs up as I tore through the finish line tape in first place.

= Several spectators gave me an instance of the two thumbs up gesture.

The difference between "a" and "the" is basically the class/instance distinction. "The thumbs up" means we are taking the point of view that this gesture exists as a single abstraction only: there is only one thumbs up in the world, and if we see two people at two different time and places give us "the thumbs up", it is the same entity showing up in two places. "A thumbs up" refers to the manifestation, where the point of view is to regard each one as a separate instance.

I received probably more than fifty thumbs up from passers by outside city hall, when I protested the closure of Jenkins Memorial hospital.

= The viewpoint that these are instances that can be treated as separate and counted.

Fifty people gave me the thumbs up.

= The viewpoint that this is one abstract thing, like "encouragement" or "support". Fifty people gave me one thing.

Interestingly, we cannot regard, say, "smile" as a class in this way:

Fifty people gave me {*the | a} smile.

Ah, but no: indeed we can. But the nuance is that this is some special kind of smile.

A: Three girls gave me the smile today, man!

B: Dude, what are you talking about. What do you mean "the smile"?

A: You know, the smile! Like this. ("A" grimaces like a monkey).

B: Oh, the smile. You devil, you! Did you get their phone numbers?

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  • I can't offhand think of a context where "the thumbs up" is idiomatic. It's either "thumbs up" (no article) or "a thumbs up". – Martha Dec 7 '13 at 4:19
  • @Martha There are 96 results in COCA for "a thumbs up", 69 for "the thumbs up". Examples for the latter include "He tells jumpers they can abort the mission at any point, at least until the thumbs up is given." and "If my aunt gives her the thumbs up, then she can meet my mom." – snailplane Dec 7 '13 at 4:33
  • @Martha It's astonishing you haven't heard "give s.o. the thumbs up". – Kaz Dec 7 '13 at 5:37
  • @snailboat, OK, I stand corrected. – Martha Dec 7 '13 at 16:03
  • I don't think the definite article is wrong, but I do think it's uncommon and awkward in those examples. I was going to say that indefinite articles aren't generally used for gestures, until I'd though of giving someone the finger. But it'd normally be more like this (informally): A: They gave me the smile B: What smile? A: You know, like, that (or the) smile that girls use when they're trying to flirt? – Giambattista Dec 7 '13 at 19:22
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The ancient Romans used a thumb in gladiator matches. It was used as a signal to spare or to kill a defeated gladiator.

It is worth noting that there are funerary sculptures from the Minoans (preceding the Romans and the Greeks) using that signal (though a thumb down signal apparently was a good thing).

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