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Big Problems with the Little Finger, or, A Story of Pinkie

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Today every English-speaker probably knows pinkie “little finger,” but it is amazing how little is said about it in the OED. The word appears in the entry pinkie “anything small, specifically little finger,” with the first example going back to 1808. The Century Dictionary (an American product) does not feature it at all, and this is even more surprising. Yet pinkie was discussed in Notes and Queries in 1872-1873, recurred there in 1916, made its way into dialectal and slang dictionaries, and in the thirties of the 20th century prompted Frank H. Vizetelly, the editor of the rubric “The Lexicographer’s Easy Chair” in The Literary Digest (I wrote about him about two years ago; sometimes he called his rubric “The Lexicographer’s Uneasy Chair”) answer questions about its origin at least twice. Those who dealt with pinkie invariably noted that it had come to English from the Netherlands and that in a new home it settled in Scotland and the United States. The word’s provenance has never been called into question; yet there is more to it than meets the eye. The meaning of the allusion to the eye will be revealed below.

Pink and pinky ~ pinkie designate all kinds of diminutive things. Among others, there is a fishing boat called this, but whether the reference is to the vessel’s small size is a matter of debate. The verb pink means “pierce” (the other senses are extensions of the main one), and the idea of piercing and pricking (whence small holes and narrow slits) seems to underlie most of the words spelled pink and their neighbors on the dictionary page. Dutch has the verb pinken “to blink, wink,” and in Standard English the adjective pink “half-shut” was common not too long ago, as follows from the song in Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra II: 7, 121: “Come, thou monarch of the vine,/ Plumpy Bacchus, with pink eyne!” (eyne “eyes”). Engl. dialectal pink-eyed “having narrow or half-closed eyes” corresponds to late Middle Dutch pinck oogen “small eyes.”

We find an assortment of short and sharp things called pink in both Dutch and Frisian, for instance, little finger, a sausage, gut, and penis. Old Engl. pynca (pinca) meant “point,” and it has been suggested that the flower pink owes its name to the delicately cut, or pinked, edges of the petals. If so, the color pink would be a derivative of that name. Pinch, punch, pin, and pen are of Romance origin, but all of them resemble pink. Those interested in the Romance part of the story will find many interesting things in etymological entries on puncheon, pungent, punctual (punctilio, punctuate, etc.), and point, as well as on Italian pinco “a small fishing boat,” “penis.” The sound complex pink seems to suggest a jabbing movement and the impression it makes on the ear. Old Engl. pyncan had the doublet pyngan, and Modern Engl. ping expresses an abrupt ringing sound, whereas the verb pink imitates the note of the chaffinch. Such words can be expected to emerge anywhere at any time, and this circumstance makes it hard to decide how they are related across the Germanic-Romance border. To exacerbate matters (as highbrows like to say), Indo-European makes wide use of the so-called infix n. Pink looks like a “nasalized” variant of pick, a twin of French piquet. Since a pick is a pointed tool, and to pick means “to probe with a pointed instrument,” from an etymological perspective the difference between pick and pink almost disappears. The relation between pick- and pink- is the same as between dick- (as in dicky bird) and dink- (as in dinky ~ dinkey). Even for “penis” we find pink (see above) alongside Engl. dick. The d- words also mean “something small.”

Pinkie “a small sharp thing” contrasts nicely with thumb, whose root is the same as in thousand and tumor (“to swell”); thus, “a thick, swollen object.” As is well-known, p in Latin and other Indo-European non-Germanic languages corresponds to f in Germanic (the anthologized example is Latin pater ~ Engl. father). Strange things happen in the closest surroundings of pinkie. The Proto-Indo-European form of the numeral five is usually reconstructed as penkwe. Its resemblance to pinkie is striking, and pinkie is indeed the fifth finger, if the counting begins with the thumb. But, given the correspondence p ~ f, pinkie should have become finkie!

Europe has not been inhabited by the Indo-Europeans forever. The most ancient languages of those who lived in the country we today call the Netherlands are lost, but their remnants in Modern Dutch (and, by implication, perhaps in Frisian) could have survived, and scholars vie with one another in trying to unearth them. The language that existed before it was submerged by that of the newcomers is called substrate. Substrate words may give themselves away by not conforming to regular sound correspondences. If pinkie is one of them, its initial p- finds an explanation. However, it would be rash to ascribe great antiquity to pinkie, which, after all, may be a sound symbolic word nurtured by North Germanic soil.

A near doublet of the nonexistent finkie is finger. Is finger related to that ghost? Finger, though recorded in all the Old Germanic languages, has doubtful antecedents. I doubt that it is allied to German fangen “catch, seize, grasp,” for nothing can be grabbed by one finger. Its kinship with the reconstructed penque should not be dismissed out of hand, so to speak. Yet here too one wonders why the word for an individual finger should have been associated with “five.” (An unquestionable congener of five is fist, which once had n after the vowel, and this connection makes sense.) Fingers are for fingering, and I find realistic the suggestion that in the Germanic word we have a nasalized variant of the root present in German ficken (that is, a form with the infix n, as above), a cognate of the Engl. F-word, whose initial meaning is “to move back and forth.” Be that as it may, pinkie does not seem to be related to either the numeral five or the noun finger. One thing is clear: pinkie is a loan from Dutch, originally a provincialism, now part of the standard language. In Dutch it is, in all probability, an expressive word, like many others of a similar phonetic shape in Germanic and Romance.

A good deal of folklore is connected with pinkies almost all over Europe. In the Midland counties of England boys link their little fingers and say: “Ring finger, blue bell, / Tell a lie, go to hell,” after which, if either failed to perform, the little finger would be sure to divulge (recorded in 1873). This incantation has many variants, for instance: “Pinky, pinky bow bell,/ Whosoever tells a lie/ Will sink down to the bad place/ And never rise up again.” In Russia, only girls interlock the little finger of each other’s right hand and repeat: “Peace, peace forever/ Quarrel, quarrel never.” Unfortunately, even the most powerful charm will not help us guess the exact origin of pinkie.


Anatoly_libermanAnatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins…And How We Know Them as well as An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears here, each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to blog.us@oup.com; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”

Recent Comments

  1. mollymooly

    I’ll wager millions of English speakers don’t know “pinkie”. I think in Britain it’s still confined to Scotland. In Ireland I was an adult before I knew it, probably from US television. We don’t have pinkie rings here either.

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