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April 25, 2008

Rings and Fingers ... and Symbolism?

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

No anthropologist am I. For one reason or another I never took a course in the subject.

That's why I'm about to start whimpering and pleading for information from you, our Noble, Learned, Sophisticated Readers. (Buttered up yet? Hope so.)

As the title of this post suggests, I'm curious as to how much symbolism is out there regarding rings and which fingers they reside on. I've noticed various things, but have been too shy to ask people whether or not they have any meaning.

To begin, in the USA married people tend to wear wedding bands on their left-hand "ring finger" -- the one between the middle and little fingers. But not all married people. When I was young, married men didn't wear wedding bands as much as they seem to today. (This was in Seattle in the 40s and 50s. I could be entirely wrong about this, but my very fuzzy recollection is that male wedding bands in those days tended to be an East Coast or perhaps a Catholic thing.) My father didn't wear one, for example. But I do.

What about rings on other fingers? Some people -- usually women -- wear lots of rings at once, sometimes even on a thumb. Let's ignore that because it's likely a fashion quirk and focus on cases where only one ring is worn.

Sometimes the symbolism is obvious. This is the case for signet rings which can represent a high school, college, fraternity, and so forth. You squint at the big thing and make out "Purdue University" or whatever.

A less obvious to me case is a women wearing a simple band on the ring finger of her right hand or on the middle finger of her left. I can theorize as to meanings, but I don't know for sure because I never asked. Are there in fact meanings attached, or is the ring finger simply being avoided to prevent confusion as to one's marital status?

There surely are other ring / finger combinations. Are any of these symbolic? I, and perhaps other readers, would like to know.



posted by Donald at April 25, 2008


What about engagement rings? Women usually wear their engagement rings and wedding rings on the same finger. That ended for us when my wife and I went to a parent/teacher conference at our son's school and a teacher noticed the diamond from my wife's engagement ring was missing. We frantically searched the halls of the school for hours looking for the diamond and didn't find anything. The next day, as a last gasp effort, I searched the floor of our car and found the diamond under the passenger seat. That event ended my wife wearing her engagement ring.

And for the record, I'm East Coast and Catholic and don't wear my wedding band. I don't wear jewelry, period, including a watch.

Posted by: Ron Smith on April 26, 2008 12:09 AM

Britain: wedding and engagement rings both on the ring finger of the left hand. (Same as the US?)

Germany: both on the ring finger of the right hand.

There was some discussion of Russian ring customs in Brian Micklethwait's comments a little while ago.

My Dad didn't/doesn't wear a wedding ring - many, maybe most, men of his generation in England didn't. I didn't for my first marriage either, by which time that was unusual for my generation. Now in my second marriage I do (just in case there was any causal connection first time round). It's the first time in my life I've worn jewelry on a regular basis. I like it.

Posted by: Alan Little on April 26, 2008 8:09 AM

Good questions. As a Manhattanite, I'm in a funny position, though -- I don't know many women who only wear one ring, and fashion-stuff like rings on thumbs (and toes) seems more common than any traditional use of rings. So maybe the symbolism here is, This is a city of fashion-victims. Though I often think it's kinda cute (when it isn't too too high-strung, anyway) ...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on April 26, 2008 9:57 AM

The first time I married my wife was in Vietnam. Over there, the bride wears her ring on the right hand and the groom wears his on the left, so that the rings are together when you hold hands.

Posted by: Scubloke on April 26, 2008 3:42 PM

I've never worn a ring in my life - British, sixtyish - but my wife sometimes likes to wear her wedding ring: fourth finger of the left hand.

Posted by: dearieme on April 26, 2008 4:25 PM

Technically, both my husband and I would like to wear our rings. Practically, we don't— he's outgrown his, and mine's an opal and hence fragile, and my job does involve many opportunities for cracking the stone. (We only have one apiece because we were a mite bit broke when we married, and it's so low-priority for us that we haven't bothered to get simple bands.)

Right now I have the excuse that I'm pregnant and subject to hand swelling.

Around where I live— West Coast— people don't seem to pay a whole lot of attention to that. I've had only one person in the last six months even notice that my hand was ringless, and she attributed that directly to the pregnancy excuse. Everyone else seems to assume that rings are optional to a certain extent and that they mean exactly what a person tells them they do.

Posted by: B. Durbin on April 26, 2008 7:53 PM

My wife and I have always worn ours, going on 13 years now. We're in California. All of our married friends wear theirs, as far as I can think of. I very much like the symbolism and the very real impact it has on other people.

I have to say, when we were first married I noticed being chatted up by single women far more than I was used to when I didn't have a wedding ring. It's an old chestnut, I guess, but still true.

Posted by: JV on April 26, 2008 11:48 PM

My ex and I both wore rings on the third (not including thumb) fingers of our left hands, like most Americans I've met who embrace the custom. Interestingly, he was not up for wearing one when the subject was raised, then abruptly changed positions when I said I'd be happy to not wear a ring either, in solidarity.

Neither of my grandfathers wore a wedding band, to my recollection, nor did my father--the "no jewelry on men" rule, you'd think, except paternal gramps, who was a dashing fellow, almost always wore one of his many gorgeous pinky rings.

I have one and occasionally will wear it on the middle finger of my left hand. In fact, that is the only finger I wear rings on, and it's almost always sporting one: like gramps, I've adopted it as a signature look.

I'd say it was because I just like the look of it there, but I'll admit that the whole idea of marriage turns me off these days, so I've probably moved all the jewelry over one finger subconsciously because of that.

Posted by: communicatrix on April 27, 2008 1:21 PM

When my wife and I married [an orthodox hippie wedding - handmade dresses for the bride and MOH, handmade & embroidered peasant shirts for the groom & BM, wild flower bouquet, etc.] we exchanged wedding bands to be worn on our left ring fingers. They were relatively inexpensive and nontraditional silver rather than gold. Being an extreme ectomorph (i.e. scawny fella) my knuckles are far wider than the lower portion of my finger and the band I wore literally cut the flesh between my fingers as it moved around. I retired that band and got another that did not cut. Even though it was tough to get on, it was still very loose on my finger once past the knuckle and kept catching on things. It was not long before it became more trouble than it was (symbolically) worth and I retired it. Over the years I have sometimes worn a couple of different rings for special events, one from my wife's family and another that was a gift, on either of my pinkies, the only finger that works reasonably well for me. My wife's band remains the one ring she wears continually.

Posted by: Chris White on April 27, 2008 4:09 PM

My (ex) husband and I both wore wedding bands on the left hand. Now I wear a ring on my right hand...middle finger and a thumb ring on the left. The only reason for the thumb ring, it was a gift and fit better.

And why is it a man with a wedding ring grabs the attention of women?

Posted by: Angie on April 27, 2008 4:30 PM

For myself, I'm more likely to have a conversation with a man I don't know if he's wearing a wedding ring because I don't have to worry about it turning into an attempted pick-up. It sort of desexualizes the encounter. In my experience, if a single woman chats with a single man who is unknown to her, or allows him to chat with her, it will inevitably taken as a sign of romantic interest on her part.

Posted by: gina on April 27, 2008 6:43 PM

"And why is it a man with a wedding ring grabs the attention of women?"

Since I brought it up, I'll offer up an answer, although I'm not saying it's THE answer. Two reasons that I can see: 1) A married guy is safe to flirt with, and 2) a married guy has already been test-driven and deemed road worthy by a fellow woman.

Posted by: JV on April 27, 2008 9:32 PM

I always wear my wedding band. I had to go without it for two periods of several weeks' duration in the past few years, once after damaging it in a gym mishap and more recently after it became too large for me. Until I could get it repaired/resized I felt practically naked :)

Posted by: Peter on April 27, 2008 10:32 PM

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