s Thoughts from the Physics Chick: thumb cuts

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

thumb cuts

I learned a new word yesterday. More properly speaking, I learned a new term. That term is: “thumb cut.” You know those circles that are cut into the pages of a dictionary or a set of LDS scriptures? The ones that help you find a specific tabbed page in the book? That’s a thumb cut.

I bet you didn’t know that. And I’m not saying that because I have a low opinion of the intelligence of my readership. I only make the assumption because I consider myself to be fairly well-informed in the world of book and publishing-related terms, and I only just learned the word. (I would be genuinely interested to know if any of you did know the term beforehand. You would definitely gain points in my book.) And yet, you definitely knew what they were – even if you didn’t know the proper term. Or that there even was a proper term.

I confess that I love knowing the words for things. I love knowing the proper name of something. I fall asleep and dream of rumble strips, semi-raglan sleeves, and sporrans. I wake up, happy to great the day with lemmas, tweeters, and skeins. I love, in particular, words having to do with books and typography. Eyes and counters, feet and spurs, serifs and finials, œthels and thorns, umlauts and diaereses, small caps and drop caps and swash caps and true italics and both kinds of colophon. Along those lines, my Designer’s Lexicon and my Flip Dictionary are two of my favorite reference books.

I’m not sure why I love these terms so much. It’s not to show off or sound intelligent – I rarely use the terms, even when given the chance; I’m afraid I’ll be misunderstood or come off as a snob. (Looking back to the “guillotine” post, this seems to be something of a theme in my life.)

And yet, it’s not technical terms per se that intrigue me. I’m well aware that the world of, say, internal combustion engines offers hundreds of new words for me. I don’t care. I think it needs to be something I encounter in my daily life, something I had often seen, but never named, or disparate instances I should have noticed, but never though to pay attention to until I found a name to gather them all together.

In Ursula K. LeGuin’s Earthsea Trilogy, to know the name of something is to have ultimate power over it. I’m not so sure that I want ultimate power so much as greater understanding. I often learn the purpose of something at the same time I learn the word for it. (Although not in the case of thumb cuts.) Headers are sideways-turned bricks in a brick wall. (“Normal,” long bricks are stretchers.) The purpose of headers is to bind together two or more layers (or walls) of brick, because one layer of brick isn’t strong enough to support a structure. Which means that if you see a brick wall without headers, it’s only a façade, because it can’t be thick enough to be supporting the building. So now I walk around campus thinking, “that’s a façade, that’s a façade, that might be structural brick . . . that’s a façade . . .”

I can only guess what I’ll learn today.


At February 22, 2006 11:55 AM, Blogger ambrosia ananas said...

Great words. And I'm excited to learn that about the bricks.

I do believe that words empower, if only because they allow you people know their meanings to efficiently discuss and communicate. Not knowing a word doesn't necessarily prevent a person from knowing about something or from using an object, but it can. (Thinking specifically of the special vocabulary employed in Nazi Germany to prevent the masses from understanding secret operations.)

At February 22, 2006 3:42 PM, Blogger ambrosia ananas said...

Also, "thumb cuts" sounds like a form of torture.

At February 23, 2006 12:23 PM, Blogger Logan said...

I know exactly what you mean. Finding out that someone else in the world has named a thing that you have oft observed but had no stable word for—it gives you reassurance that the universe is actually there, independent of yourself.

For example, 'Mornington Crescent' was mentioned on BB, as a general name for games that are not games at all but an act designed to confuse outsiders. So now I can declare that Fizzbin and Snipe-hunting are examples of 'Morningtion Crescent' games.

At February 24, 2006 7:14 AM, Blogger Thirdmango said...

I actually did know what it meant. I had a very random facted companion and he would come up with random facts at any moment. He did that once with the scriptures.

At February 24, 2006 9:13 PM, Blogger Katya said...

Points for thirdmango!

At February 25, 2006 3:24 AM, Blogger Th. said...


It sounded off to me so I asked Lady Steed and she provided the term "thumb tabs" and I was happy, because that fit better what I already knew.

Google says:

"thumb cuts" 877
"thumb tabs" 16,900
"thumb index" 121,000

How about that?

(ps: we learned the term last year in Sunday School--one way you know she is the best teacher ever--pity we had to move)

At February 25, 2006 10:03 AM, Blogger Katya said...

Th. - Do you suppose those might refer to different things, though? The thumb tab being the little tabs themselves, the thumb cuts being the cut-outs, and the thumb index referring to the whole system?

Also, it looks like Googling "thumb tabs" returns a lot of extraneous results. ("Guitar chords for Rolling Stones: Under my Thumb, tabs chords, lyrics . . . ")

Plus, it seems that "thumb tabs" can also refer to books with color coded boxes that bleed off the page and mightn't it also refer to books with tabs that extend out from the book?

"Thumb cuts" would seem to return fewer superfluous hits, and to be a more precise term. I'm sticking with it. ;)

At February 25, 2006 9:38 PM, Blogger Th. said...


Interesting points and questions. In my very brief look, the only extraneous result I noticed was someone with papercut thumbs, but I did not look closely at all.

I like your three-definition theory. I think I may stick with that one.


Post a Comment

<< Home