(n.) the distance between the thumb and forefinger when extended
We love celebrating the words for things you didn’t know had names here on HH, and today was no different: the space formed between your extended thumb and forefinger is called the purlicue.
Where does that word come from? Well, the truth is that it is all a bit of a mystery. When it first appeared in the language around the turn of the eighteenth–nineteenth centuries, a purlicue was an ornate pattern or flourish, written or drawn at the end of a piece of text or, more often than not, at the end of a word or a signature.
Etymologically, it’s been suggested the word is a fanciful extension of the Scots dialect word pirl, meaning ‘to twist’, ‘to spin’, or ‘to entwine’—perhaps a reference to the sinewing, spiralling appearances of these written designs. Another suggestion, however, claims that the word is a corruption of the French par la queue, literally meaning ‘with the tail’. Both theories are equally plausible, admittedly, and the word’s precise history remains something of a puzzle.
What we do know, at least, is that because these decorative flourishes were always added to the ends of words or chapters, over time purlicue also came to be used of a concluding text or speech—or, in religious contexts especially, an evaluating recap of the main points in a sermon. And because these handwritten flourishes served no real purpose, the plural form purlicues likewise came to be used of needless trivialities or frivolities. How the word came to be used in the sense we posted on Twitter, however, is another mystery.
A tantalizing clue is offered by an 1825 Glossary of North Country Words, which included an entry for the expression “a spang and a purlicue”, defined as “a measure allowed in a certain game at marbles.” Perhaps the flicking of a marble between the thumb and forefinger—perhaps with some kind of ‘pirling’ spin applied to the marble itself—is the missing link here, connecting its Scots dialect origins to the distance between the fingers? That, however, is mere conjecture. In truth, the purlicue remains a wonderful etymological enigma.