If you cross your fingers when making a wish, or if you tell a friend, “Keep your fingers crossed,” you’re taking part in an ancient custom that required the participation of two people, intersecting index fingers. The popular gesture grew out of the pagan belief that a cross was a symbol of perfect unity; and that its point of intersection marked the dwelling place of beneficent spirits. A wish made on a cross was supposed to be anchored steadfastly at the cross’s intersection until that desire was realised.
The superstition was popular among many early European cultures. Interestingly, the notion of trapping a fantasy until it becomes a reality is found in another ancient European superstition: tying a string around the finger. Today we label the practice a “memory aid,” a means of “psychological association” in which the string serves merely as a reminder of a task to be performed. To the Celts, the Romans, and the Anglo-Saxons, however, the string was thought to
physically prevent the idea from escaping the body.
Originally, in crossing fingers for good luck, the index finger of a well-wisher was placed over the index finger of the person expressing the wish, the two fingers forming a cross. While one person wished, the other offered mental support to expedite the desire. As time elapsed, the rigors of the custom eased, so that a person could wish without the assistance of an associate. It sufficed merely to cross the index and the middle fingers to form an X, the Scottish cross of St. Andrew. Customs once formal, religious, and ritualistic have a way of evolving with time to become informal, secular, and commonplace. As the ancient “knock oak” custom generalised to “knock wood” to today’s “knock whatever is handy,” so the “crossed fingers” of friends degenerated to a wisher crossing his own fingers and finally to today’s expression “I’ll keep my fingers crossed,” with the well-wisher never actually doing so, and no one expecting him or her to.
Thus, what was once deliberate and symbolic has now become reflexive and insignificant— a sign of the times we are living in, perhaps?.