Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

Feeling fingers, part 2

Finger seems to be a transparent word, but this transparency is an illusion, for what is fing– (assuming that we understand what –er is)? Our story began last week (see the post for September 25, 2019), and I attempted to show that one of the two best-known etymologies of finger, namely, from the numeral five, is “less than fully convincing” (a common academic euphemism for “nearly unacceptable”). As a matter of fact, no one likes it, but, since dictionaries have to comment on the origin of each word they include and since the formula “of unknown (obscure, undiscovered, doubtful) origin” cannot satisfy the public, they prefer to say something, rather than remain silent. More about this subject below.

The second dubious but well-known etymology of finger connects it with the German verb fangen “to seize, catch.” English has lost this word, but fang contains the same root. The word was taken over from Scandinavian and meant “catch” (a noun). The other sense (as in White Fang) developed a few centuries later.

Here I should make a short digression. I often mention the name of Francis A. Wood. He was a member of an excellent group of scholars at the University of Chicago that cast a wide net: they explored the ways of naming objects all over the Indo-European world. The best remembered product of those activities is Carl Darling Buck’s A Dictionary of Selected Synonyms in the Principal Indo-European Languages: A Contribution to the History of Ideas, an invaluable reference book.

This book made the word fang famous. The Oxford World’s Classic edition of The Call of the Wild, White Fang and Other Stories by Jack London.

The group attracted numerous graduate students, all of whom wrote dissertations with similar titles, often published in the journal Modern Philology and later appearing in book form. The most famous student of Wood and Buck was Leonard Bloomfield. But here we are interested in William D. Basket’s work Parts of the Body in the Later Germanic Dialects. He found six main synonyms for “finger” in German dialects, including at least one that refers to grasping, catching, and scraping (in Swabian).

You need the whole hand for grasping! Cat scruff, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

In his all-encompassing 2000 survey, Ari Hoptman (see the reference in the previous post) did not miss this fact and again noted that the fangen connection does not recognize the finger as an independent unit, only as a set. “The act of grasping necessarily requires more than one finger, often the forefinger and the thumb; thus it is strange that one finger would still be deemed ‘a grasper’, considering all the other things the finger can do independently.” One more linguist whose name appears with some regularity in this blog is Wilhelm Oehl. His study of “primitive creation” produced many useful parallels (and a few fanciful ones). He was a supporter of the finger-fangen idea. The Swabian case is troublesome, but more details are needed, for us to be able to evaluate it. At the moment, we know only the word and the gloss, but not the situation in which the word is or was used.

As a matter of curiosity, it should be mentioned that, even though the origin of hand is often said to be uncertain, its connection with the Gothic verb hinþan “to seize” looks probable. If, for the sake of argument, we accept the connection, this is where the grasper really is: the hand, not the finger! It should also be noted that fist probably has the ancient root meaning “five,” and again this fact makes perfect sense.

Of the other etymologies of finger I’ll mention only one, which goes back to the beginning of the seventeenth century: finger was compared with Latin fingere “to mold, sculpt; arrange; compose” A clever comparison, but Germanic f corresponds to Latin p (as in father ~ pater), so that the words cannot be related, unless we resort to the idea of borrowing. However, Germanic fingr– looks like a native word; also, Latin finger– does not refer to fingers.

A fist needs five fingers. Image by Bruce Emmerling from Pixabay.

As a rule, it is useful to look at Buck’s “synonyms” outside Germanic, though in this case there is not much to be gained. Latin digitus is obscure and yields the sense “pointer” only if we turn it into dicitus and ally (equate) with Greek dáktylos (or Latin dactylus, mentioned in the previous post), but we will again resist the temptation to do so. Perhaps more instructive is a look at Russian palets and its cognates elsewhere in Slavic. Originally, the word referred to the thumb; the finger was called perst. (Note: Engl. thimble has the same root as thumb, and the connection must have happened for good reason, but the Russian word for thimble, na-perst-ok, has the root of perst “finger”. Conclusion: don’t generalize).

Palets (that is, “thumb,” from a historical point of view) has been compared with Latin pollex “thumb,” Latin palma “the palm of the hand,” the verb feel (to us, the most interesting parallel of all), and a few other words in Latin and Greek.  But since palets once meant “thumb,” its putative connections with feel, so tempting at first sight, will take us nowhere. The thumb is not a feeling finger, and all attempts to connect finger and pollex should probably be abandoned.

Sergei Rachmaninoff: two more beautiful hands, even though only one is in plain view. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, [reproduction number, LC-DIG-ggbain-31755].

Where then are we at the end of our cursory look at the proposals? Fingers are not toes, even though all of them are “digits” (hardly a startling revelation). In any case, the etymons of finger and toe are different. Each of the five fingers of the hand is useful and necessary, and all of them are fiercely individual (the thumb and the forefinger especially so). Consequently, the derivation of finger from the word for “five” is unlikely. Fingers point and “feel”; they don’t catch, seize, or grasp. For this reason, the connection between finger and fang (or German fangen, with its related forms in Scandinavian) should also be given up as unrevealing. It appears that we are exactly where we were at the beginning, and the impression is correct.

Ari Hoptman suggested that finger is one of the many sound-imitative or sound symbolic words that designate movement. Feel, we may remember, is defined as “examine by touch.” Hoptman’s supportive material is not too impressive, because not a single word he cites looks too close to finger. Compare fumble, flitter ~ flatter, flicker, and so forth, including perhaps the rather opaque fritter. It may be that finger continues some verb for “fumble” or “palpate.” Touch, from French, is sound-imitative. It goes back to some verb like toccare: compare Russian tuk-tuk (u as in Engl. put) “knock-knock.”

The uncertainty of the proposed etymology could be predicted. If the perfect sought-for verb existed, it would have been exposed to light long ago, and the etymology of finger would have been solved once for all. But in the sound-symbolic area, even some much more secure solutions are usually looked upon with distrust (for no reason whatsoever, as far as I can judge). Thus, the etymology of the ignominious English F-word remains in limbo, despite the existence of a host of words all over the Germanic-speaking world of the same structure and meaning “to go back and forth” (not necessarily, even not too often, with sexual connotations). And yet Hoptman’s etymology is intrinsically more probable than all the previous ones, whose weakness is manifest, but whose venerable age allows dictionary makers to cite them again and again, hedge, and apologize for what they say.

Every time I open Google, it says: “I am feeling lucky.” The reason for its permanent elation is not disclosed. Perhaps I am supposed to respond in kind. My moods change depending on the situation, but now that you have read two posts on the origin of the word finger, you, along with Mr. Google, may, I hope, indeed feel lucky.

Feature image credit: Van Cliburn playing to children on a visit to Israel, by Moshe Pridan, 1962. Public domain, Israel National Photo Collection. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Recent Comments

There are currently no comments.