Posted by: Jack Henry | October 8, 2020

Editor’s Corner: Fingers and Toes

A few weeks ago, I had a discussion with Donna about the names of fingers and toes. I said the doctor didn’t refer to my middle finger (which was not being used in an insulting way) as my middle finger, he called it my “long finger.” Donna then told me that her parents had names for all the digits. They were names that she shared with her kids—and they still remember them even though they’re grown. Besides long finger, I think one of them was Long Jerkin, and I don’t remember the other names. I thought it was cute. I just learned them as pinkie, ring finger, “the bird” (or middle finger), pointer, and thumb. Thanks, Dad!

Today’s tidbit is also about fingers and toes, from Even-Steven and Fair and Square: More Stories Behind the Words, Morton S. Freeman.

A hand has five fingers. [KC – He hasn’t met the meat cutters I worked with.] Since everyone knows it, that is not an exciting fact. And neither is there much of a story behind the naming of these digits, but it is interesting to learn what the various fingers were called many years ago and why they were given these names.

The first finger, the inside finger, is the thumb, in Old English called the thuma, meaning “thick” or “swollen.” Some anatomists would dispute that statement, for they say that a man does not have five fingers. He has four fingers and a thumb. They reason that since a finger has three phalanges and a thumb only two, the thumb is not a finger. (The word phalange comes from the Greek phalanx, a close battle formation of spearmen carrying overlapping shields, because someone fancied that the small bones in the hands and toes were suggestive of a battle array.)

The second finger, the one after the thumb, is known as the index finger because it is used for pointing (index is the Latin “informer,” “something that indicates,” that which points out). In Middle English, the index finger was called the toucher (spelled towcher) because it was so often used to touch things. The third finger, now known as the middle finger, was called the long-man, for obvious reasons. The next, the fourth finger, now called the ring finger, was formerly called the lecheman because a leech or doctor used it for testing (leech is an archaic word for physician). The fifth finger, the pinkie, was called the little-man, here again for obvious reasons.

One question still remains to be answered: Who or what was finger’s ancestor? Most etymologists surmise that its original forebearer was penkwe, an Indo-European word mean “five,” from which evolved the form penkweros, meaning “one of five.” Certainly a finger is one of five. Which makes one wonder, how about the toes? Toe, in Anglo-Saxon ta, meant “to show.” This was its etymological sense all the way up through Middle English. Of course, in ancient barefoot or sandal-wearing times the toes were always, “that which shows.” This is still true, figuratively in today’s world when a person is made to “toe the line.”

I hope you found this handy information interesting!

Kara Church

Pronouns: she/her/hers

Technical Editor, Advisory

619-542-6773 | Ext: 766773

Editing: Symitar Documentation Services

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