First recorded in 1835, the noun butterfingers denotes a person with a tendency to let things fall or slip from his or her hands, i.e., a butterfingered person. The adjective butterfingered means having a tendency to let things fall or slip from one’s hands.
This adjective is first recorded in The English Husvvife, the second Book of Countrey Contentments (Printed at London by I. B. for R. Iackson, […] 1615), by the English author Gervase Markham (circa 1568-1637):
It resteth now that I proceede vnto Cookery it selfe, which is the dressing and ordering of meate, in good and wholsome manner; to which, when our Hous-wife shall addresse her selfe, she shall well vnderstand that these qualities must euer accompany it: First, shee must be cleanly both in body and garments, she must haue a quicke eye, a curious nose, a perfect taste and a ready eare (she must not be butter fingered, sweet-toothed, nor faint hearted); for, the first will let euery thing fall, the second will consume what it should increase, and the last will loose time with too much nicenesse.
In The vocabulary of East Anglia; an attempt to record the vulgar tongue of the twin sister counties, Norfolk and Suffolk, as it existed in the last twenty years of the eighteenth century, and still exists; with proof of its antiquity from etymology and authority (London: J. B. Nichols and Son, 1830), the English philologist Robert Forby (1759-1825) added an acceptation of the adjective, i.e., unable to handle hot items with one’s bare hands:
BUTTER-FINGERED, adj. “apt to let things fall,” says PE. *; rather to let them slip through the fingers as if they were greasy; also unable to handle hot substances; as if the surface of the fingers were melted, and so lost the power of retention.
* This refers to the following in A Supplement to the Provincial Glossary of Francis Grose, Esq. F.S.A. (London: J. Nichols, Son, and Bentley, 1814), by Samuel Pegge (1733-1800):
Butter-fingered. Said of persons who are to let things fall.
And the following definition is from The Dialect of Craven: In the West-Riding of the County of York (London: Printed for Wm. Crofts, 1828), by William Carr (d. 1843):
BUTTER-FINGERED, He who is afraid of touching any heated vessel or instrument.
EARLIEST OCCURRENCES OF THE NOUN BUTTERFINGERS:
1-: From Chapter IX of Gilbert Gurney, by the English author Theodore Edward Hook (1788-1841), as published in The New Monthly Magazine and Literary Journal (London: Henry Colburn) of June 1835:
When the traitor Thistlewood and his murderous gang of accomplices were to be executed before Newgate, my friend, whose taste lay that way, secured a window to witness the catastrophe. The sentence included decapitation after death; and when the executioner commenced his work by cutting off the head of Thistlewood, and holding it up to the people as the head of a traitor, a shudder of horror thrilled through the crowd. The second similar operation upon the next culprit produced a similar effect, but in a slighter degree; and so completely did that feeling wear off as the performance of his duty proceeded, that when, in lifting the head of the seventh traitor, as the preceding six had been lifted to the public gaze, the executioner happened to let it fall, cries of “Ah, clumsy,” “halloo,” “butter fingers,” were heard from various quarters of the assembly.
According to an account published in The Sheffield and Rotherham Independent (Sheffield, Yorkshire, England) of Saturday 7th December 1839, during a Chartist meeting held in the Carpenters’ Hall, Manchester, on Saturday 30th November 1839, the Irish Chartist leader Feargus O’Connor (1796-1855) referred to the story told by Theodore Hook and said:
The executioner […] was assailed by the name of “butter fingers, butter thumbs.”
2-: From The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club (London: Chapman and Hall, 1837), by the English novelist Charles Dickens (1812-1870):
The stranger, meanwhile, had been eating, drinking, and talking, without cessation. At every good stroke he expressed his satisfaction and approval of the player in a most condescending and patronising manner, which could not fail to have been highly gratifying to the party concerned; while at every bad attempt at a catch, and every failure to stop the ball, he launched his personal displeasure at the head of the devoted individual in such denunciations as—“Ah, ah! stupid”—“Now butter-fingers”—“Muff”—“Humbug”—and so forth—ejaculations which seemed to establish him in the opinion of all around, as a most excellent and undeniable judge of the whole art and mystery of the noble game of cricket.
3-: From The Picayune (New Orleans, Louisiana, USA) of Wednesday 30th August 1837:
A little careless butter-fingers dropped a pitcher.
“Hip! you little careless rascal, what are you doing there, breaking pitchers!”
“I did’nt break it.”
“What, you little lying”—
“I did’nt break it—it broke itself; I only let it fall—and it just broke!”
4-: From The Man about Town (Philadelphia: E. L. Carey & A. Hart, 1839), by the English author Cornelius Francis Webb [later Webbe] (1789-1858):
Meantime the game went on, and Lark-Hall-Lane was beating “All the World” to nothing, although Spiffle missed catching three as easy balls as ever came to hand in a cricket-field, and came in vain; for Spiffle “successfully lost them all,” so some one said, when he was sure he had them, and only got three stunning raps on his fingers, which made him shake them deplorably, and whip them into his mouth to ease their pain, amid loud exclamations of “Hah, butter-fingers! Who taught you to catch a ball?” “Why don’t you put your gloves on, lady’s-fingers?” “Unlace your stays, dandy!” “Unbutton your straps, Snip!” “There he goes again to get a no-go!”—to all which suggestions and remonstrations “did Hippy seriously incline” to listen and laugh, as he saw the conceit of Spiffle gradually being taken out of him.
5-: From Scenes with “Uncle Sam”, by Wildrake, published in The Sporting Review. A Monthly Chronicle of the Turf, the Chase, Rural Sports in all their Varieties (London: Rudolph Ackermann) of December 1839:
Next came the “gander-pulling,” a very pretty pastime, in its way, but “not quite to my taste,” as the sea-serpent said when he swallowed the nigger. An old gander was tied on the top of a post, close to the ground, but just within average reach of the arm of a man on horseback, and his head slushed in grease, until it was as slippery as an eel’s tail. The “gander pullers” then, in turn, rode by, at their full speed, making, en passant, a great grab at the gander, who, having more sense than a goose, made “artful dodges,” and then cackled at their “butter-fingers.” This game is excellently calculated to exhibit all the skill and coolness of the operator. He must be careful not to skim too high, nor reach too low, but hit the happy medium. If he should catch poor goosey napping, he must not hesitate, but have a firm and steady hand, clutch him with might and main, and crack! “Off with his head! so much for gander-pulling.”