Dwindling your thumbs?

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Rosey Billington sent in this passage from a blog post:

I used to hate staying in my room. I used to hate sitting on my chair for hours, being unproductive and just dwindling my thumbs away.  I had to constantly walk about the house, which I still do…But I also hated the fact that I had such a small room and nothing was in my room.

Rosey comments:

I thought maybe "dwindling my thumbs away" was intentional misuse of "twiddling my thumbs", to conjure up images of this woman idly wearing her thumbs down to stumps. As I read on, I realised it wasn't intentional, so I checked for ghits. Variations of "dwindling my thumbs" (varying the verb and/or pronoun) show up to around 800 ghits. Other examples of "dwindling my thumbs away" (or variations thereof) don't really occur, but apparently a certain Russian lady is passing up the chance to dwindle her thumbs down:

"You will forget about boredom with me! The palette of my interests looks like a rainbow sparkling with ideas, pursuits and aspirations. I am a self-made lady who enjoys daring challenges. That is why I like travelling and active sports: skiing, yachting, horse riding. I keep my mind opened to the world and am always ready to surf the wave of novelty and changes. Once I’ve completed the model career, I could just rest on the laurels and dwindle my thumbs down, but my everlasting longing for self-development and creation would never let me do so, thus I’ve taken up photography which is now one of the greatest passions of my life. Though I am extremely extravagant when it comes to friendship, warmth and care, I still keep a lot of love and tenderness in my heart for the man who will stand the closest of all to me. I am generous and sincere in my feelings and you’ll never feel forsaken even when I am going to be buzy."

Some other examples of thumb-dwindling seem to have been written by native speakers of English:

In a sluggish economy, travel can be expensive for one individual – not to mention the costs associated with families of three, four or more. The solution however, is not to spend all summer at home dwindling your thumbs – instead, get creative and search for cheap cruise deals.

These moderates (traitors in some vocabularies) believe in dwindling their thumbs and holding onto ideals of non-violence while Iraq is being invaded and torn apart again!

Dwindling my thumbs until then.I'm heading to NYC tomorrow until Tuesday for one last trip before its time to go back to school.

Forget tanking …. lets push for the playoff spot …. I think we could potentially end up at 5 or 6 if we stop tanking. That would give us some legit chance at getting a big free agent signing or use the TPE effectively. The team is always overlooked by others … so unless we get a good playoff standing we could be left dwindling our thumbs with all the extra cash.

Why are some online casinos making a killing while others are left dwindling their thumbs not knowing how to attract players. These casinos with declining customer-base year after year don’t seem to realize that gambling enthusiasts are a smart lot and the only way to retain them is to offer quality with a big “Q!”

It leads one to wonder what humans actually accomplished between ancient Greece and the latter half of the 18th century- were we just dwindling our thumbs?

One possibility, of course, is that some people, confused by sound similarity and sound symbolism, have just analyzed dwindle as meaning "twiddle" (in the relevant sense).

But given the examples of "dwindle away" or "dwindle down", there certainly do seem to be some people who have re-interpreted the (somewhat opaque) idiom "twiddle one's thumbs", meaning something like "to twirl or play with one's thumbs as a way of wasting time", as the (at least equally opaque) idiom "dwindle one's thumbs (down/away)", meaning something like "to wear out one's thumbs in idle play".

And for this latter set of people, "dwindle one's thumbs" is thus an eggcorn, one not yet documented in the eggcorn database.


  1. Bobbie said,

    January 28, 2011 @ 9:59 am

    Reminds me of high school when one wit defined "Arms Akimbo" as a minor gangster (like Legs Diamond!)

  2. Spell Me Jeff said,

    January 28, 2011 @ 10:00 am

    Is it not likely that false analysis of an idiom would often be followed by a reinterpretation, or are you suggesting that these are two distinct processes by which eggcorns come into being?

    [(myl) The substitution of dwindle for twiddle with the normal meaning and idiom-pattern of twiddle would be more a malapropism than an eggcorn.]

    Is there a way to test either hypothesis?

    [(myl) The main difference is what the author of the substitution takes the result to mean. If the interpretation of "dwindle one's thumbs" is something like "to make one's thumbs smaller and smaller", then the substitution counts as an eggcorn. That's why Rosey pointed to "away" and "down" as relevant evidence.]

  3. richard howland-bolton said,

    January 28, 2011 @ 10:01 am

    The result of too much texting?

  4. language hat said,

    January 28, 2011 @ 10:03 am

    Interesting. Note the "correction" here:

    Page 270 – "I am not just dwindling my thumbs" (twittering or twitteling my thumbs).

    I had no idea the phrase was so opaque to so many people, and how varied the replacements might be.

    [(myl) There are certainly many examples of "twittle my thumbs", but most of these are probably just spelling errors.

    Things like

    In our instant society, NFL players just twitter their thumbs, telling the world in 140 characters or less their thoughts on their predicament.

    seem to be conscious word-play, but I could imagine that before long there will be people who think that "twitter one's thumbs" is the original phrase, and "twiddle one's thumbs" is an error.]


  5. language hat said,

    January 28, 2011 @ 10:12 am

    Just twirling my thumbs…

    just fiddling my thumbs

    I’m actually at the office right now just twittering my thumbs. I’m pretty sure that’s not an actual phrase… and it probably makes no sense

    Lots of "twittling" and "twidling," but those are just misspellings.

  6. Spell Me Jeff said,

    January 28, 2011 @ 10:20 am


    I'm still wondering if this is a 1 or 2-stage process. I can easily imagine a malapropism ("dwindle") morphing into a recognizable eggcorn ("dwindle away") after repeated usage and reanalysis. But I can also imagine "dwindle away" arising whole-cloth.

    Maybe both ways happen?

    [(myl) As Gibbon put it, "the paths of error are various and infinite". It's a miracle that any two people ever learn a language consistently enough for some approximation of communication to take place.]

  7. Robert Coren said,

    January 28, 2011 @ 11:33 am

    If the usage is actually suggested by the idea of "reducing" ("dwindling down", etc.), it's the first instance I've encountered of "dwindle" as a transitive verb.

    [(myl) But not the first instance that the OED has encountered:

    2. trans. To reduce gradually in size, cause to shrink into small dimensions.
    a1661 T. Fuller Worthies (1662) Suff. 56 Divine Justice, insensibly dwingling their Estates.
    1679 Prot. Conformist 4 These Monsters‥have dwindled the Wolf into a Fox.
    1710 Pict. of Malice 12 Dwindling the Prince below the Pigmy Size.
    1867 G. Gilfillan Night i. 13 Like a star‥When dwindled by the moon to small sharp point.

    You could strengthen your Google-fu by finding a host of others.]

  8. Faldone said,

    January 28, 2011 @ 11:41 am

    Gibbon must have been in the bar with me when the patron a couple of stools down and the bartender, talking about a mutual friend who had been skiing, took about ten minutes to figure out that one of them thought they were talking about snow skiing and the other about water skiing. It was fun listening to the conversation slowly derail.

  9. Twitter Trackbacks for Language Log » Dwindling your thumbs? [upenn.edu] on Topsy.com said,

    January 28, 2011 @ 11:44 am

    […] Language Log » Dwindling your thumbs? languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=2929 – view page – cached I used to hate staying in my room. I used to hate sitting on my chair for hours, being unproductive and just dwindling my thumbs away. I had to constantly walk about the house, which I still do…But I also hated the fact that I had such a small room and nothing was in my room. Tags […]

  10. John Cowan said,

    January 28, 2011 @ 11:51 am

    Well, perhaps this change (if it becomes one) will add strength to the ever-dwindling supply of English words in dw-. The OED lists only dwarf, dwell, dwindle and their relatives in standard use, plus the dialectal terms dwa(l)m 'swoon', dwang 'floor-strut', dwile 'mop', and dwine 'waste away' (dwindle was originally the frequentative of dwine). Dweeb is modern and seemingly arbitrary, and readers of Tolkien have learned dwimmerlaik, which appears in the OED in the form demerlayk, its most recent pre-modern spelling.

  11. SeanH said,

    January 28, 2011 @ 12:47 pm

    @Bobbie: Arms Akimbo was a one-episode (I think) Freakazoid villain. He appears at 1:50 in this clip.

  12. Jerry Friedman said,

    January 28, 2011 @ 1:05 pm

    @John Cowan: Speaking of Tolkien, D&D(TM) and no doubt other role-playing games have revived dweomer, a magic spell.

  13. Brett said,

    January 28, 2011 @ 1:20 pm

    I have encountered "twiddle" in the wild in only two contexts. The main usage is the one in reference to thumbs. [Of course, references to thumb twiddling are probably figurative more often than not. I rarely see anyone genuinely (see my comment on the next post!) playing with their hands in such a fashion. And this leads me to wonder how specific a behavior people think "thumb twiddling" refers to. To me, it means something very particular—interlacing my other eight fingers while moving my thumb tips in circles around one-another. That's how my mother showed me how to do it, after I encountered the phrase in Dr. Seuss's Scrambled Eggs Super and asked her about it.]

    I never really thought about what "twiddle" meant outside this fixed phrase until I encountered the word in high school, as the name of a Magic: the Gathering card. (The card can be found with e a Google image search for "twiddle.") And that's the only other place where I've seen or heard the word used.

  14. GeorgeW said,

    January 28, 2011 @ 2:19 pm

    @John Cowan: And, /dw-/ is preserved in names like Dwight and Duane.

    Isn't /w/ added after some stops in certain New York accents like 'cwoffee twalk?' How in /d-/ words?

  15. Nicholas Waller said,

    January 28, 2011 @ 3:25 pm

    @John Cowan – also Tolkien, there's "It is ill dealing with such a foe: he is a wizard both cunning and dwimmer-crafty, having many guises.' — The Two Towers

  16. Michael Johnson said,

    January 28, 2011 @ 4:34 pm


    You're wrong about New York accents:


  17. Ralph Hickok said,

    January 28, 2011 @ 4:44 pm

    I recently overheard a similar conversation about riding. It gradually became obvious that one person was talking about riding horses, the other about riding motorcyles.

  18. nemryn said,

    January 28, 2011 @ 4:50 pm

    Huh. To me, 'dwiddle my thumbs' seems more like a collision between 'twiddle my thumbs' and 'diddle around' (or a variation thereon), which has a similar meaning to twiddling one's thumbs.

  19. Rubrick said,

    January 28, 2011 @ 5:20 pm

    @Brett: I have encountered "twiddle" in the wild in only two contexts.

    I'm unfamiliar with the Magic card, but in my world knobs are twiddled at least as often as thumbs. (The settings affected by those knobs, on the other hand, are tweaked.)

  20. Haamu said,

    January 28, 2011 @ 6:35 pm

    Knobs, yes, but also bits. Programmers have a long history of twiddling.

    twiddle: n.

    1. Tilde (ASCII 1111110, ~). Also called squiggle, sqiggle (sic — pronounced /skig�l/), and twaddle, but twiddle is the most common term.

    2. A small and insignificant change to a program. Usually fixes one bug and generates several new ones (see also shotgun debugging).

    3. vt. To change something in a small way. Bits, for example, are often twiddled. Twiddling a switch or knobs implies much less sense of purpose than toggling or tweaking it; see frobnicate. To speak of twiddling a bit connotes aimlessness, and at best doesn't specify what you're doing to the bit; ‘toggling a bit’ has a more specific meaning (see bit twiddling, toggle). 4. Uncommon name for the twirling baton prompt.

    And from the same well-known source, a nice usage note:

    Usage: frob, twiddle, and tweak sometimes connote points along a continuum. ‘Frob’ connotes aimless manipulation; twiddle connotes gross manipulation, often a coarse search for a proper setting; tweak connotes fine-tuning. If someone is turning a knob on an oscilloscope, then if he's carefully adjusting it, he is probably tweaking it; if he is just turning it but looking at the screen, he is probably twiddling it; but if he's just doing it because turning a knob is fun, he's frobbing it. The variant frobnosticate has been recently reported.

  21. Nathan Myers said,

    January 28, 2011 @ 6:43 pm

    In Hacker culture, "twiddling" is intermediate between "adjusting" and "frobnicating", as applied to oscilloscope knobs, on the scale of decreasing seriousness of purpose.

  22. Tim Silverman said,

    January 28, 2011 @ 7:10 pm

    Hmm, if you can dwindle your thumbs and twittle your thumbs, then can you whittle your thumbs?

    Yes, apparently you can.

    Ouch! Ow!

  23. KCinDC said,

    January 28, 2011 @ 7:57 pm

    There are also 7 ghits for "piddling my thumbs". Hmm.

  24. Kevin Miller said,

    January 28, 2011 @ 8:45 pm


    When I was working in a music store as a college student a customer came in asking about buying a "wood piccolo." I and another employee spent nearly fifteen minutes talking to him about the various features of the wooden piccolo flutes we could special order, watching him get more and more confused. Finally we showed him a catalog, and he said, "No, I meant a piccolo snare!"

  25. Rod Johnson said,

    January 29, 2011 @ 11:45 pm

    Re the supposed frob/twiddle/tweak scale: entertaining as the jargon file is, Eric Raymond's assumption of the mantle of authoritative lexicographer of "hacker culture" should be viewed with some skepticism, I think.

  26. KCinDC said,

    January 31, 2011 @ 8:51 am

    Just saw a new (to me) eggcorn: "up-surd" for "absurd". Seems to be fairly widespread.

  27. Mike P said,

    January 31, 2011 @ 6:05 pm

    I occasionally find myself in conversation in which I've been describing how I get around by bike (bicycle) and realize that the other person is talking about motorcycles.

  28. Ron said,

    February 1, 2011 @ 2:30 pm


    As a weekend race car driver I've had similar experiences with "race," "racetrack", etc., which for me refer to motor sports more than horses. Once I was asked how many horses I was running and replied, "about 140." That took some sorting out!

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