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Feeling fingers

This will be a story of both protagonists mentioned in the title: the verb feel and the noun finger. However, it may be more profitable to begin with finger. In the year 2000, Ari Hoptman brought out an article on the origin of this word (NOWELE 36, 77-91). Although missed by the later dictionaries, it contains not only an exhaustive survey of everything ever said about the etymology of finger but also a reasonable conjecture, differing from those he had found in his sources, both published and unpublished. In what follows, I’ll depend heavily on his exposition, but a few introductory remarks are needed.

Finger is a Germanic word without cognates outside Germanic. As far as we can judge, IndoEuropean lacked a common name for “finger.” This circumstance complicates all solutions, but Germanic poses a special difficulty, and English can be used as an example. In addition to the word finger, English has thumb and toe. From a historical point of view, thumb means something like “a swollen one.” It is related to Engl. thousand (“a very large number,” from a historical viewpoint) and tumor, which has the same root in Latin (Engl. th corresponds to Latin t by Grimm’s Law, or by the First Consonant Shift). The word thumb cannot tell us anything about the mental process that resulted in coining the word finger.

Fiercely individual. Image CC0 via MaxPixel.
The thumb can be put to better use, but tastes differ. Thumb sucking by tommy.lan, CC-BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr.

Neither can toe. Outside Germanic, the opposition of finger versus toe is uncommon. Therefore, it has been suggested that at one time toe meant the same as finger, with the later differentiation of the synonyms. To bolster up this idea, toe has been compared with Latin digitus “finger” (the word known to English speakers from digit and digital, or, if you prefer, from prestidigitation “quick finger work”). But the phonetic correspondence between toe, from the much older form taih-, and the Latin word is not good: to make digitus match toe, it has to be derived from dikitus. Such tricks, played on words with the single purpose to justify a desired etymology, should be avoided.

The German for “toe” is Zehe, which bears some resemblance to the German verb zeigen “to show; point to.” Though this verb has secure related forms outside German, the connection between Zehe and zeigen is far from obvious. The idea of their being connected again stems from the idea that toes at one time meant the same as fingers and did the same work as those. However, it is safer to assume that finger and toe were from the start coined to designate different body parts and, whatever the initial idea underlying finger might be, the two words hardly ever functioned as synonyms. Let us also bear in mind that the hand has five fingers, and, if we discount the thumb, only one of them, namely the forefinger (or the index finger, or the lickpot, if, after being exposed to prestidigitation, you now need a hopelessly archaic noun) is “independently active.” Perhaps finger once referred to the index finger, and only later the name acquired a broader meaning (“finger in general”).

The opposition between finger and toe gave lexicographers no end of trouble. How do you define toe? Dictionaries find refuge in Latin. A toe, we are usually told, is a digit on the foot. Only a learner’s dictionary explains that toe is a finger (!) on the foot. And so it of course is! There is simply no way of explaining toe otherwise, however awkward this definition may sound. The origin of toe is not obscure. Fortunately, English has preserved the word mistletoe. This plant has deadly association in Scandinavian myths, because the mistletoe was the weapon that killed the shining god Baldr. England offers a friendlier scenario: holly and mistletoe at Christmas and kissing under the mistletoe.

Little twigs on a little foot. Image CC0 via MaxPixel.

The second component of mistletoe (-toe) means “twig.” Its congeners are Gothic tains, Old Icelandic , and others. Toes, it appears, were described as “twigs” on the foot: the image looks credible. To be sure, fingers could also be understood as twigs on the hand, but there is no evidence for this approach. To sum up, it appears that neither thumb nor toe will furnish us with a clue for discovering the ancient impulse behind the creation of the word finger.

Mistletoe. Not a deadly weapon, but it kills its host. Image by Egle P. from Pixabay.

The oldest Germanic form of finger has been recorded in fourth century Gothic. Following the rules of Greek orthography (the Gothic gospels were translated from Greek), it was spelled as figgrs but pronounced as fingrs. The story began with a form like fingraz. In Old Engl. finger, the second vowel (e) was inserted later. The origin of this word remains a puzzle. The conjectures are not too many, and the best known of them are old. Some historical linguists connect finger with the numeral five. In the past, five had the consonant n in the middle (German nf still has it, and Gothic for “five” was fimf). However, the path from finf or fimf to fingr “does not run smooth.” To begin with, it is hard to understand where the suffix –r came from (it is indeed a suffix, not an ending: see fingraz, that is, fingr-az above). I’ll skip the suggestions about this –r (they are too vague and too uncertain), for more important is the semantic part of the reconstruction.

True enough, the hand has five fingers, but those are individualized entities. We have already noted the history of thumb and the synonyms for index finger. People constantly invent names for them, such as middle finger, ring finger, little finger, pinky, and the like. Remember nursery rhymes like “This little piggy went to market” (finger play). The whole point of such songs and games is that the fingers of the hand are treated individually, rather than as a “multitude.” (You may remember that the last little pig said: “Wee! Wee! I can’t find my way home” or “Wee, wee, wee all the way home.” That is why in The Tale of Little Pig Robinson by Beatrix Potter, when Robinson was abducted, he cried wee, wee like a little Frenchman.)

Even if we ignore the obnoxious suffix r, I believe that Hoptman was justified in saying that deriving finger from five is flawed, because the finger turns out to be one fifth of the hand. “The concept ‘five’ is perhaps not the most logical word to denote such an important instrument as the finger. One might expect that the finger would be named for what it can do alone, as well as what it can do together with the other fingers, and it would make far more sense to name a body part based on shape, function, or movement than on mathematics.” Yet dictionaries keep recycling the old etymology. They do of course supply their entries with a certain amount of hedging, but evading the main issue does not save an unconvincing approach.

So what is the best etymology of finger? And why is the little finger called pinkie? Wait until next week. Even more than one week may be needed for us to get to the end of the story. And don’t forget that feel has also been promised in the title.

Feature image credit: This little piggy by Thomas Berg. CC-BY-SA 2.0, via Flickr.

Recent Comments

  1. Yves Rehbein

    “Fänge” is a name for claws of an animal, especially a bird, like “Krallen” (literally claws), where “krallen” (to take, steal) would parallel “fangen” (to catch). More perplexing, in my humble opinion, is that “nail” seems to stem pretty certainly from the corneous epithal plates covering the last segment on each of the bendable ends of the extremeties (that’s how to define toes and fingers) of humans or animals (obsolete for bird claw, cf Grimm’s)… not from the metall spikes and pegs! “unter den Nagel reißen” means “to grab land, a price, to steal” (surely not per chance related to “under the hammer, auctioned of”?). The direction and sense of development baffles me in either case. “Griffel” (viz gripper, grabber; also “pencil”) strikes a similar cord but not necessarily the same direction. “Flossen” (fins(!)) means hands, coincidence (not so in English?)?

    “fingieren” (to fake, to faign [death], surely latinate, but not generally prominent in English) probably doesn’t belong here. What about Lat “pungo” (to prick, prod, to finger), “puncture”, “point” (Ger “Punkt”)?

    The “-r” is an agentive suffix, surely? I’ve seen skandinavian words with -r suffixed to a consonant, by the way.

  2. Yves Rehbein

    That should be “to feign [death]”, I’m sorry. I should also add that “nail” also meant “claws”, i.e. in Sanskrit.

  3. Constantinos Ragazas


    It is possible to derive “toes” from Latin “digitus” if the first two syllables are dropped while the last syllable “tus” is kept as an abbreviation.

    This is quite common when going from a polysyllabic word in Greek or Latin to a typical monosyllabic equivalent in English. Common ‘primitive’ English words are notoriously monosyllabic. Often abbreviations to polysyllabic loan words. Usually Greek or Latin.

    For example, English “grass” from Greek “grassidi”. Or English “tree” from Greek “dentro”.


  4. Jan

    Interestingly the German equivalent to English “rule of thumb” is “Faustregel”; makes you wonder about the “mental process” involved in that figure of speech – at least I’d have expected a “rule of fist” to be quite violent…German also has “Pi mal Daumen” though.

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