Americans cross their fingers, but in Sweden people “håller tummarna” (literally hold their thumbs)—both for the same reason: to wish someone the best of luck. What’s that about? In a recent article in daily DN, a representative of the Language Council of Sweden explained: “This is a question that’s part linguistic and partly has to do with people’s conceptions of the world and higher powers. To ‘hold your thumbs’ or say you will is a very old way of expressing protection against evil powers, like the demon Mara, and to wish for success."

It is known that as early as the first century after Christ, people of the Roman Empire would ‘hold their thumbs’ for others. But crossing your fingers for success is something different—that’s from the early Christian church, where crossing fingers meant protecting against evil by alluding to the cross. Today thumbs are held in many parts of northern Europe: Sweden, Finland, Germany, the Netherlands and Poland, are a few examples. But in countries like England, Norway, Denmark, Spain and France, one crosses fingers instead. And beware: In Sweden crossed fingers (usually held behind one’s back) means a person is lying.