Why Did People Stick Their Pinkies Out?

(Last Updated On: November 2, 2021)

Ever seen a movie or TV show with a bunch of aristocrats drinking tea or whatever? If not, you’re probably at least vaguely familiar with the stereotype of rich people drinking tea with their pinkie fingers sticking out. You probably did it as a kid for no particular reason–just like how you used any stick-shaped snack as a cigarette. That aside, what’s up with the pinkie thing? Why did people stick their pinkies out? Especially the British.

Teacups Don’t Fit Your Hand

Teacups have a long history, and ended up in the hands of the English after being imported from either China or Japan, with the European teacup emerging around the 17th century. At some point, you’ve probably seen a British teacup, and they’re pretty small. Unlike a massive mug, you probably can’t wrap your whole hand around a teacup without having some spare space for your fingers. To adequately hold a teacup, you simply don’t need all 5 fingers, and you’ll probably just find that your little finger is just kind of… Not doing anything. So the basis of sticking out pinkies might be as simple as “we didn’t know what to do with our hands.”

Random aside, but there was also that time people thought hot tea was the worst, so they drank out of flat saucers to help it cool faster. It was loud and easy to spill, so the rich didn’t really take to it. However, this was not so for the poor during the industrial revolution. Working people didn’t even have paltry labor rights, and their days were super regimented. Pouring tea into a saucer to cool faster was just efficient. 

So even teacups were used to make less-poor people feel better than poor people. There are a lot of myths ranging from syphilis damaging your joints (including the pinkie ones) as there was a big problem with syphilis in the 17th century, all the way to nobility just not really wanting to touch anything their servants handled. These aren’t very well substantiated, though.

Spice Fingers

Through the 1500s Europeans didn’t really use utensils, and even used the amount of fingers they ate with as a means of class distinction. The poor used all 5 fingers, while the upper class only used the first 3. Which is… like about the same amount of fingers that fit comfortably on a small teacup. Go figure.

Anyway, Europeans also got spices around the 15th century, and spices–even something like salt–weren’t super commonplace. When dipping things into spices, the aristocrats with access to spices often used their pinkies to dip into spices–then they’d put their pinkie on their tongue to get the spice flavor. To keep pinkies clean, people would keep them from getting other contaminants on their fingers–something pretty simply done by sticking it out. 

It’s said that by the time tea arrived in the 17th century people probably kept the tradition. As well as their spices. 

See if you know whether or not you’re looking at tea or a dictator here. Dic-tea-tor?

About the Author:

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Kyler is a content writer at Sporcle living in Seattle, and is currently studying at the University of Washington School of Law. He's been writing for Sporcle since 2019; sometimes the blog is an excellent platform to answer random personal questions he has about the world. Most of his free time is spent drinking black coffee like water.