We all know what a thimble is. It’s a little metal cuplike thing, best known for being little and cuplike. It is most useful as an image for expressing ridiculously small amounts of fluids such as liquor, coffee, and common sense. It’s a Tom Thumb tumbler.
Thimbles are also sometimes collected by people – they have been made in a variety of outrageously cute and decorative forms, some really quite scenic and fine, and consequently quite expensive at auction.
The word thimble is also useful for making puns; in particular, thimble-minded suggests itself readily, though you probably won’t get to use it too often. It also has a taste of nimble (thimble-fingered?) and humble (thimblebrag?) and of course symbol (sex thimble?).
Many people know that thimbles typically have a pitted surface reminiscent of that of golf balls. Most people, if they have seen a thimble in person, happened on it in their mother’s or grandmother’s sewing kit. Or, of course, in their Monopoly game.
But did you know that thimbles are actually used for something?
For many years of my childhood I had exactly no idea what the point of a thimble was. I just knew it was a thing used somehow for sewing, and it was shaped like a cup but you couldn’t set it with the open end up because the other end was curved. Then, one day in my adolescence, I set to sewing some small fix. I found that it really freaking hurt to have to keep pushing the needle through the thick parts of the cloth with my fingertip. The back end of a needle may not be the point, but it’s still pretty acute. And somehow the light just dawned. I knew a thimble could fit over a finger. I suddenly realized why you would want to have a thimble on your finger. Huh.
Look, I learned a lot about cooking from my mother, but I generally had little interest in sewing and never really asked her to show me how, beyond the simplest things. (From my father I learned about photography, in case you’re wondering.)
Sewing was a stereotypically distaff activity for centuries – distaff itself, which means ‘of or relating to women’, is a metonymic use of the name of an implement used in spinning flax into thread – and so the sewing kit and its bits, notably thimbles, could be assumed associated with the lady of the house. A thimble was a small, dainty, ostensibly useful gift. Hence the collectible thing. Even princesses and queens would give and receive them on occasion. Usually ones quite inappropriate for actual use, of course.
And where did we get this word? Old English þymel, from þuma ‘thumb’ plus the suffix el, which we also see in, for instance, handle. A handle is an implement used by and fitted to the hand; a thimble is an implement used by and fitted to the thumb. Or finger, if you prefer. Or, of course, used for its merely thymbolic value.