Why is a good gardener known as a green thumb? The answer involves a vegetable-loving king, a wartime radio show, and a dishonest corn miller.
In American English, a person with skill for gardening is sometimes called a “green thumb.” The expressions “having green fingers” and “being green-fingered” are the equivalent in British English. And the opposite—someone who lacks skill at growing plants—is known as a “brown thumb.” But just how did these expressions come to be?
Thumbs and Fingers
One theory is that algae grows on the underside of earthenware pots, and it can stain a gardener’s fingers green if he or she handles them often enough. A gardener who puts in the time and effort to work with enough gardening pots could literally have a green thumb.
Another, albeit dubious, theory comes from a story about King Edward I, who loved green peas and kept half a dozen servants shelling peas when they were in season. He rewarded the servant who shelled the most as evidenced by having the greenest thumb.
“Green fingers” was the phrase recorded first, however, and it was used as early as 1906 in the novel The Misses Make-Believe by Mary Stuart Boyd. Boyd wrote of “what old wives call ‘green fingers’: those magic digits that appear to ensure the growth of everything they plant.”
“Green thumb” was first recorded in a 1937 Ironwood Daily Globe newspaper article noting that it was slang for “a successful gardener with instinctive understanding of growing things.”
Both phrases caught on in the 1930s and ’40s when they were used on a popular BBC radio program called “In Your Garden,” hosted by C. H. Middleton.
The Green Thumb and the Golden Thumb
The thumb in particular being green may have been an analogy to a Middle English proverb: “An honest miller has a golden thumb.” This phrase originated around 1386 in The Canterbury Tales, in which Geoffrey Chaucer writes that the miller “hadde a thombe of gold.” Chaucer tells us that the miller also stole corn and charged three times what it was worth, yet he was regarded as having a gold thumb. There are various interpretations of this saying. One interpretation is that millers were widely regarded as being dishonest, so even the most trustworthy still took a secret cut. Nobody really has a golden thumb, so a truly honest miller doesn’t exist. Along those lines, millers sometimes deceived customers by using a finger or thumb to press down on the scale when weighing grain, thus driving up the price. Another interpretation is more along the lines of the miller having a Midas touch—grain seemed to turn to gold in his hands because of how lucrative his business was. So perhaps a golden thumb could refer to someone with a skill for making money, often in a dishonest way.
The golden thumb and the green thumb could be siblings in the family of English idioms—or they could be unrelated. The green color of the thumb could have some literal meaning—or it could simply be an association with the color of plants. There is great temptation to make connections between phrases and ideas without real evidence from historical usage, but what we do know is that gardeners work with their hands, digging and pruning and using their thumbs and fingers to work with all shades of green plants.
A Modern Twist
We also know that gardening requires skill, patience, and effort to bring about the rewards of flowers and fruit.
One modern interpretation of “green thumb” was given by London Brockbank in a worldwide broadcast in which she discussed her experience working in her family’s sizeable garden in her youth. In an interview with a religious leader, she said,
“Everybody likes and enjoys picking the fruit . . . but I’d say probably weeding is the most challenging because you’re down on your hands and knees, and after a while you start to ache. And your hands are dirty. We would stain the tips of our fingers and our thumbs green from pulling.”
The interviewer responded, “That’s why they said you had a green thumb.”
Brockbank replied, “Yes, you’d think it was because the plants grow well; it’s because the weeds are getting pulled.”
“Green thumb” has often been taken to mean that a natural, inborn skill for gardening. But it seems that a successful harvest can come from the diligent efforts of any dedicated gardener who is willing to work through the weeds.
Brockbank, London. In Gong, Gerrit R. “Valiant in the Testimony of Jesus.” January 10, 2021. 2021 S&I Worldwide Devotional for Young Adults. https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/broadcasts/miscellaneous-events/2020/01/12gong?lang=eng.
“Can You Tell Me How the Expression ‘Green Thumb’ Originated?” The Old Farmers’ Almanac. https://www.almanac.com/fact/can-you-tell-me-how-the-expression#:~:text=Answer%3A%20According%20to%20James%20Underwood,or%20she%20handles%20enough%20pots.&text=The%20serf%20who%20had%20the%20greenest%20thumb%20won%20a%20prize.
Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Canterbury Tales. General Prologue, lines 564–565.
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Rossen, Jake. “Why Are Gardeners Said to Have a ‘Green Thumb’?” May 13, 2020. Mental Floss. https://www.mentalfloss.com/article/624352/why-do-gardeners-have-a-green-thumb.