Why Do We Cross Our Fingers?

Beyond just kind of saying “fingers crossed” to wish a friend luck or physically doing it just now to prove you still could, you probably haven’t crossed your fingers since you were in elementary school or something. We’ve picked up two meanings to it too, one for luck and one for lying. So what’s up with that–why do we cross our fingers?

Wishing Luck

Might as well tackle each meaning to crossing fingers one by one. You probably wouldn’t be surprised to learn that the crossing of fingers (at least as Americans know it) might be owed largely to Christians. However, it might also not be. 

The contemporary theory on finger crossing is largely attributed to Christians, at least the modern gesture people typically use. If you go all the way back to even the 1st Century AD, you’ll find that the Romans didn’t really like the Christians all that much. As such, early Christians were big on hiding the fact that they held their beliefs–because otherwise things would turn out rather poorly for them.

This led to secret symbols and hand gestures so Christians could find each other without non-Christians figuring it out. Among these are the ichthys between the 2nd and 4th Centuries. You might recognize it as the “Jesus Fish.” It’s said early Christians made this symbol with their hands–by touching their thumbs and crossing their index fingers opposite their thumbs. The theory holds that this evolved into just crossing the index and middle fingers over time, and became associated with luck by virtue of invoking the Christian God’s blessing.

Alternatively, finger crossing in Western Europe may predate the Christain faith. Intersecting lines were still important spiritual symbols, and wishing for good fortune upon crossed lines was definitely a thing people did. It just so happens that our fingers are pretty line-shaped, so we can make crosses with them quite easily. People would cross fingers with others to say good luck–which likely then evolves to doing it with your own hand.

While finger crossing probably predates the Christians, the popularization of the gesture is more localized to Christian regions. So the widespread use of finger crossing in say the West is largely attributed to the Christians as a result.

Crossing Liars

Alright, but what about that other thing? People also cross their fingers to justify lying or get out of promises. 

There’s significantly less to finger crossing and lying–though some theories still point to Christian persecution. Not surprising given what we said earlier about the gestures being localized to where Christianity is more commonly observed. Crossing one’s fingers is considered offensive in Vietnam, and isn’t associated with luck in German-speaking nations and Sweden. Instead, they press their thumbs into their firsts (like how everyone tells you not to punch because it’ll break your thumb) to express luck. This gesture is shared in Slavic countries and Afrikaans-speaking nations. 

If you’re familiar with the Ten Commandments, you’re aware that not lying is one of them. Which kind of becomes a problem if the Roman guard is trying to figure out if you’re Christian. Because if you said you were, you were going to have a real bad time. So it was in the best interest of then-Christians to lie about their faith. 

It’s said that those persecuted would cross their fingers while lying about their faith as a way to kind of “get away with it” in the eyes of God. 

Alternatively, it could have been born of the “asking for luck” practice. You know, you’re asking for fortune to get away with the lie. 

Want to say more with your fingers? Spell some stuff with ASL finger spelling here.

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