Syphilitic Pinkie

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Here’s a story I heard a long time ago about syphilis. I don’t know if it’s true: you tell me, Dear Reader.

You know how posh little old ladies and flamboyant gay men like to hold their pinkie finger in the air when drinking tea? This is because of syphilis at the court of Louis XIV in 17th century Paris. Those people were severely pox-ridden. And they were the cultural elite of their time, emulated in every detail of dress and behaviour by Europeans everywhere.

One thing syphilis does to you is damage the joints of your fingers. After a few years, you are no longer able to bend your pinkies. When holding a glass or cup, your pinkie will point ineffectually at the ceiling. Non-infected people won’t readily understand this, and even if they do understand, they may see the pinkie thing as a typical trait of your poxy social circle. If they admire you enough, they may go home from your splendid court and start doing the pinkie thing even if you have not managed to infect them with syphilis. Call it a meme if you like.

The guttural French R sound has been gaining ground in European languages since the 17th century and is currently typical as far north as the Swedish province of Småland. There is a hypothesis that this linguistic trend was started by a single very influential person with a speech impediment, somewhere in France. Perhaps the man with the pinkie?

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Comments

  1. #1 Roy
    May 19, 2007

    The syphillitic pinky thing sounds fabricated. I’m no authority, but the place to look is at diagnostic features of the disease. If there is even a slight correlation between syphillis and stiff pinky syndrome, the association would be helpful as an indicator.

    Secondly, for the stiff pinky to be an indicator of syphillis there would have to be a well-known tendency for that finger to be the first site to exhibit joint problems, out of all the joints in the body. So, is this ringing any bells? No, a deafening silence then?

    My money says whole-bean hocum.

  2. #2 Richard Simons
    May 19, 2007

    As cup handles are too small to get all your fingers in, what else do you do with your pinkie? Just leave it in the relaxed position, which is more or less straight.

  3. #3 Fluffy
    May 19, 2007

    I hope that part about the French R was intended as a joke, because otherwise, whoever came up with it was on crack. I’m not even sure how to specifically refute it, because it’s just…*linguistheadexplosion*

    But I do find it interesting that the french are “guttural.” Usually we only insult germans or aboriginals like that. It was about time we came up with a new way to insult those cheese-eating surrender monkeys! The guttural ones, I mean!

  4. #4 Lars L
    May 19, 2007

    But the panda on the picture: Is he syphilitic stage 2. I´m of course referring to that second finger that obviously seems a little stiff! :-)

  5. #5 Henrik
    May 19, 2007

    I think: Not true. A quick look in the learned books:

    As with other forms of Treponema, the tibia is is the bone most frequently affected by venereal syphilis, although multiple bone involvement throughout the skeleton is frequently noted, notably internal inflammation of the skull bones.

    Venereal syphilis may also result in destructive changes of the joints, characteristically the knee, giving the patient an unstable gait. No mention of the fingers in in particular.

    You should perhaps be looking for a Silly Syphilitic Walk, rather than a Pointy Pinky :-)

  6. #6 Arkein
    May 19, 2007

    A few years ago I heard another, more plausible-sounding explanation from a historian on French TV: the habit started at the dinner tables of the French medieval nobility. As hunting was the exclusive preserve of aristocrats, only they could eat meat. Meat dishes were an essential part of feasts hosted by nobility. Another culinary privilege of the nobility was that they seasoned their meat dishes with condiments such as salt, pepper, and nutmeg. These were extremely expensive luxury commodities at the time. These feasting noblemen ate with their fingers, since the use of forks and spoons at the table is a cultural development that came much later historically. It became the norm to hold one’s pinky away from the meat so that it would stay dry and could be used for serving oneself from the common pots of condiment. It was important to keep that pinky dry so that the precious seasonings wouldn’t become rancid.

    As for the “guttural” French R, it is probably rooted in the Celtic languages that merged with Latin to form what we now know as French.

    These theories of syphilitic-pinkies and the spastic origins of the French R sound rather dubious to me, Perhaps invented by the type of person who would call French people “Cheese-eating surrender monkeys?”… I’m tempted to say that I’d rather be that than an imperialist, Burger-eating, war-mongering, brainless gorilla… but I won’t…

  7. #7 Fluffy
    May 19, 2007

    Erm, Arkein, I was making a joke. To, you know, mock the type of people who gave us Freedom Fries, etc. Should I have put a [snark] tag on my last paragraph?

  8. #8 Arkein
    May 19, 2007

    Apologies Fluffy, I guess I misread you. You know we froggies can be a bit touchy sometimes… especially when it comes to matters of cheese… As for the french fries, we leave that to the Belgians.

  9. #9 rehana
    May 19, 2007

    Miss Manners (I think) had a very simple explanation. Tea is hot, and you want to hold the cup with as few fingers as possible.

  10. #10 Martin R
    May 20, 2007

    Syphilis used to be known in Swedish as franska sjukan, “the French disease”. Maybe we should start calling it “The Freedom Disease” to show our support for the troops? Or perhaps “The Sexual Freedom Disease”.

  11. #11 Martin R
    May 20, 2007

    Arkein, about those meat-eating Medieval aristocrats:

    1. Most of their meat was from livestock.

    2. OK, so you have a non-greasy pinkie. Now, how to you take spices with a single finger if you’re not going to lick it? (It’s basically a Zen koan.)

  12. #12 Arkein
    May 20, 2007

    Martin,

    Speaking of troops, it seems that the term “French Disease” comes from a poem by a certain physician-poet named Fracastor, which said that it was French troops who first brought back the disease from a campaign in Naples in 1495 (http://www.freeessays.cc/db/42/saq173.shtml). It was also called Naples Disease and Venetian disease in some circles (http://www.archaeology.org/9701/newsbriefs/syphilis.html)… I guess each blamed their neighbours to the south for the scourge.

    About the medieval meat-eating aristocrats and their pinkies:

    1. yes, most of the meat was from livestock, but the nobility still got more meat and seasoning than the rest, and game was central to feasts.

    2. According to the explanation I heard, they used their pinky like a spoon, scooping the spices with the inside of the pinky, palm upwards.

  13. #13 Henrik
    May 26, 2007

    @Arkein:

    …Another culinary privilege of the nobility was that they seasoned their meat dishes with condiments such as salt, pepper, and nutmeg. These were extremely expensive luxury commodities at the time.

    Reference, please? Judging from historical accounts (written and archaeological), salt and pepper was used (and traded) in wast quantities in medieval Europe. A culinary privilege of the nobility? Or rather a commonplace in medieval cooking!

    These feasting noblemen ate with their fingers, since the use of forks and spoons at the table is a cultural development that came much later historically. It became the norm to hold one’s pinky away from the meat so that it would stay dry and could be used for serving oneself from the common pots of condiment. It was important to keep that pinky dry so that the precious seasonings wouldn’t become rancid.

    Then how come archaeologists have unearthed a large number of medieval eating knives and spoons? And what are the people in medieval pictures doing with those knives and spoons at the table? Could they be using them as cutlery?

    According to the explanation I heard, they used their pinky like a spoon, scooping the spices with the inside of the pinky, palm upwards.

    Have you tried doing this yourself? As you imply, the spice would be dry – just try to scoop up ground nutmeg with your dry pinky, and please do tell us if it works.

    I have my doubts about it!

  14. #14 Martin R
    May 26, 2007

    In Jules Verne’s The Children of Captain Grant, some tropical birds eat too much nutmeg and get stoned out of their skulls. Just thought you should know.

  15. #15 Arkein
    May 27, 2007

    Henrik,

    I was only describing what I remembered hearing from a TV program I saw a very long time ago, and I am neither a historian nor an archaeologist, so I may have recalled wrongly, added my own erroneous assumptions, and/or the hypothesis itself may be wrong. If so then so be it. It isn’t my own theory and I don’t swear by it. It just seems like a more plausible explanation than syphilis.

    If indeed true, the fact that vast quantities of salt was traded doesn’t automatically imply that the stuff was cheap or within the reach of just anyone’s purse. A commodity may be traded in vast quantities, but if demand outstrips supply, if it is a monopoly, or if it is traded through many middlemen before it reaches the consumer, prices will inflate. Also, vast quantities of a certain good doesn’t automatically imply homogenous distribution throughout society. After all, if I am correct, salt was called ‘white gold’ in the Middle Ages because it was so valuable, the bulk of it mainly used as a preservative for fish, meat and other perishables, enabling these goods to be transported over large distances to be traded abroad. As for pepper, nutmeg, and clove, these were scarce (in terms of the supply-demand ratio) and expensive commodities until the end of the 15th Century, when the Portuguese and Spaniards, followed by the British and the Dutch started importing spices directly and in great quantities from the Spice Islands, in what is now called Indonesia (two wonderfully written and well researched books on the subject of the spice trade and the British-Dutch race for the spice Islands are Nathaniel’s Nutmeg by Giles Milton and Batavia’s Graveyard by Mike Dash). Until the 16th Century, the prices of such spices were highly inflated as they were traded through numerous middlemen along the lengthy spice routes. Furthermore, during the Middle Ages, the spice trade in Europe was controlled mainly by Venice — this quasi-monopoly was another reason for inflated prices. It is interesting to note that Nutmeg is also an effective preservative of meats, and was used as such since the Romans. Nutmeg also had the additional benefit of masking the fetid taste of rank meat, something which neither salting nor smoking could do very well. Furthermore, spices were also prised for their putative medicinal properties. So it remains plausible to me that the use of salt and especially spices as condiments at Medieval dinner tables was a luxury reserved to the wealthy, although salted meats were probably available to a much larger ‘consumer base’.

    Concerning the use of cutlery, mea culpa, I made an error, since it seems that even forks were used as far back as the ancient Greece. However the use of forks and table knives as we now know it for eating meats does not seem to have become widespread until the 17th Century in many parts of Europe:

    “The first report of the fork as an eating utensil dates back to the 11th century, when the Venetian daughter of Byzantine Emperor Constantine Ducas used a small gold one. While forks were widely used by the upper class in Italy during the late Middle Ages, they were not known in England until 1608, when the English writer Thomas Coryate returned from a walking tour and showed his countrymen the Italian eating implement. The English were slow to adopt the idea; as Jonathan Swift put it in 1738, “Fingers were made before forks, and hands before knives.” The English considered eating with forks effeminate and regarded them as jewelry. Used only on special occasions, an elaborate knife-and-fork set was considered an ideal gift for a bride. The first English monarch to use a fork was James I (1566-1625), son of Mary, Queen of Scots. Forks are not recorded among the utensils brought to America in 1620 by the first Colonists. Gov. John Winthrop of Massachusetts introduced the fork in 1630, but it did not come into general use until the 18th century.”
    (quoted from http://www.trivia-library.com/b/story-behind-inventors-and-inventions-fork.htm)

    If you scoop with your pinky from a filled pot (I just tried it), yes you can get a small dose of finely ground nutmeg, pepper, or salt onto the ‘palm’ of your pinky quite easily, just enough to sprinkle over a piece of meat.

    I’d also like to apologise to all again for the inappropriate comment at the end of my first post. It was intended as a wry response resulting from my avowed misreading of Fluffy’s comment, not at as a blanket insult toward a whole nation, and not to be taken too seriously. Nevertheless it is wrong to say such things, it does not reflect my opinions, and I regret it.

  16. #16 Arkein
    May 27, 2007

    More historical info on forks and evidence that the European medievals used their fingers to eat meat: http://inventors.about.com/gi/dynamic/offsite.htm?site=http://www.calacademy.org/research/anthropology/utensil/forks.htm

  17. #17 Henrik
    May 28, 2007

    Forks

    My point about forks was that people did have knives and spoons to eat with in the Middle Ages (very broadly defined as a certain stretch of time somewhere between the Roman Empire and Shakespeare, and, perhaps, even including them too).

    Very interesting report on forks.

    Forks are not recorded among the utensils brought to America in 1620 by the first Colonists. Gov. John Winthrop of Massachusetts introduced the fork in 1630, but it did not come into general use until the 18th century.

    …and still today forks aren’t in general use in some ‘civilized’ countries. No names.

    Salt’n’pepper

    Clearly my knowledge of cloves and nutmeg isn’t exactly huge. Still, if your food is heavily salted, why would you wan’t to salt it, if even a little?

    Pinky

    Anyway, I just went to the kitchen and tried to scoop up salt with my little finger and I must admit that it is perfectly possible, and with some training might even become quite easy, provided that the spice is finely ground (I used a mixture of salt and pepper, hand ground to a powder with a pestle, medieval style ;-) ). The amount of spice is not large, but, as Arkein said, quite fitting for a small piece of meat.

    So, about the syphilis/salt-scooper pointing pinky, I’m not ready to accept that the pinky posture isn’t in some way culturally acquired.

    Also, it cannot easily be proven or dismissed that it is a reminisence from medieval aristocracy. I would still like to see pictorial evidence for that one!

    But (and here’s the clue!) if you were syphilitic to a degree where your were unable to move or bend your pinky, I’d say it would be rather impossible to scoop up anything, the way I just did in my kitchen.

  18. #18 Martin R
    May 28, 2007

    (Note to self: bring own spices if invited to Henrik. What other members is he dipping into them?)

  19. #19 Henrik
    May 28, 2007

    OK, come to think of it, I do have (some sort of) proof against the french.. er, medieval aristocrats and their scooping up salt with dry pinkies.

    Here goes:

    • Make yourself a stew or soup and cook a large piece of beef in it.
    • Take a knife (which you are under no circumstance whatsoever going to use as an eating implement, it’s strictly for cutting ;-) )
    • Cut out a die of cooked beef about one or two inches wide on each side, lift it to your plate (yes, the medieval aristocrats had plates too, don’t get me started).
    • With the four first fingers, grab the meat die and lift it off the plate towards your mouth.
    • Hey, you’re an aristocrat, straighten your pinky, man!
    • Now just squeeze the meat, just a little bit….
    • Is your pinky soaking wet, yet?

    You can do it with a soaked kitchen sponge instead, if you don’t have the time to make a stew just for this experiment.

  20. #20 Henrik
    May 28, 2007

    You know, Martin, a pestle is not a part of the human anatomy!

  21. #21 Martin R
    May 28, 2007

    Really? That’s odd. My wife always refers to part of me as “the rock-hard, throbbing and absurdly huge marble pestle”. Maybe it’s just because Swedish is her second language.

  22. #22 Henrik
    May 28, 2007

    I know you have a large skull, but why would she call your cranium that?

  23. #23 Martin R
    May 28, 2007

    Something about my mad head-givin’ skillz?

  24. #24 Henrik
    May 28, 2007

    Don’t tell me!

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