Like the serpent ring in this photo. Or maybe she has him at the end of a string, like a yo-yo, flying back and forth with each flick of her hand.
A bogus etymology claims the expression came from falconry, referring to the strap on the bird’s leg, which is sometimes wrapped around the handler’s ring and little fingers. This explanation is appealing but not supported by any history of usage in print.
In a search of Google Books, the earliest instance of “wrapped around her little finger” is in the 1918 Vassar Miscellany Monthly (Volume 4):
She seemed pretty crazy about him, but it never seemed to me that she was as far gone as he was. She had him wrapped around her little finger, and he certainly did do as she wanted.
Google shows scattered mentions in the 1920s and 1930s, in fiction and in a newsletter, suggesting a slangy/vernacular origin. In 1938, J. Charles McNeil copyrighted a song titled “She’s got you wrapped around her little finger.” The song never made the hit parade, but the expression came into wide use in the 1940s.
Conclusion: “Wrapped around her little finger” has a clear meaning and a compelling image, though it’s hard to say exactly what the image looks like. We may never know its origin. It may never have been a real metaphor at all. A metaphor, by definition, is a comparison based on something imagined. “Wrapped around her little finger” may have been just a quirky turn of phrase, an idiom, like pulling a stunt or hopping a plane.
Postscript: Be wary of etymologies that trace to falconry. The claims for “under one’s thumb” and “codger” are bogus too. When you have a question about the history of the English language, here are two resources that document their answers:
Photo credit: Coiled Cobra ring, available from next.com:
(Posted on FB June 30, 2014)