Tuesday, January 24, 2012


Lately an excellent colleague of mine, an enormously learned young man, has directed my attention to Mrs. Piozzi [Hester, previously Mrs. Thrale], specifically to her diary entry for March 29, 1794 (ii. 874f.), in which she coined the term “finger-twirler,” not one that I had previously come across. “[Ann,] Mrs. [Bertie] Greatheed & I call those Fellows Finger-twirlers,” wrote Mrs. Piozzi, “meaning a decent word for Sodomites: Old Sir Horace Mann [first baronet] & Mr. [George] James the Painter had such an odd way of twirling their Fingers in Discourse;―& I see Suetonius tells the same thing of one of the Roman Emperors ‘nec sine molli quadam digitorum gesticulatione.’ [Life of Tiberius, 68].” Finger-twirler does not yet appear in the O.E.D. among the many compounds listed in the article on finger, n., so at first I wondered if the nearest viable approximation was the citation for finger-work—“(a) work executed with the fingers; (b) the play of, or manipulation by, the fingers”—viz., 1849 D. Rock, Church of Our Fathers, III. x. 354: “A rich pall of silk, the finger-work of some queen,” but I am sure this is far too literal a reading. No doubt Mrs. Piozzi knew what she was doing, but I do wonder about the leap from digitorum gesticulatione to twirl. In any event, it seems that she was consistently preoccupied by matters of sexual orientation, perhaps to the point of obsession, though Mrs. Piozzi was certainly right about Sir Horace Mann and Mr. James, and I am sure she would have extended the same compliment to their friends Thomas Patch and Lord Tylney, who were also, by all accounts, fully paid-up, card-carrying finger-twirlers.

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