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Monthly gleanings for September 2019

Some more finger work

In the posts for September 25 and October 2, 2019, the etymology of the word finger was discussed. Some comments on the first one require further notice.

Final –r. I deliberately stayed away from the origin of –r in fingr-, though I did mention the problem. This -r is not a suffix of a “doer” (nomen agentis “agent noun,” as in catch-er or singer). The verb fing– did not exist (that is why even in Modern English finger rhymes with linger, rather than ringer). If it had existed, the Gothic word would have ended in –āreis, the oldest German word would have been fingāri, and so on. Consequently, we have to deal with the root fingr-, and the status of final -r remains a matter of controversy. The details of this controversy are of little interest to us, and I passed them by.

Deceptive Latin correspondences. Pingo (pinxi, pictum, pingere; from the root pict– we have depict, picture, and so forth) “to paint” only looks like a good match for finger. First, –r still remains unexplained. Second, how can the mental process be reconstructed? No one paints with a finger, so that the association appears unrealistic. Finger never meant “brush” or any other implement, and among the many words having the root ping- ~ pict- not a single one designates a body part.

Pingo rhymes with fingo “to shape, adorn,” and, at least in Latin, those near-synonyms and near-homonyms appear to have influenced each other. But finger can be neither a borrowing of the Latin root (the word is undoubtedly native Germanic) nor its cognate (both begin with f’; by the First Consonant Shift, Latin p should correspond to Germanic f). Consequently, this approach also fails.

Engl. pinky ~ pinkie. The word is a borrowing of Dutch pinkje, via Scottish (the same meaning, and in Dutch it is perhaps a diminutive of pin “a small object”). The not uncommon statement that the meaning of pinkie was influenced by the color word pink looks like an exercise in folk etymology. Is the little finger pinker than its bigger brothers?

Do pinkies, even when locked, resemble the pink of perfection? Images by Luisella Planeta Leoni and skeeze from Pixabay.
Many nails produce a superb foot. Lion Paw by Barney Moss, CC by 2.0 via Flickr.

Finger and the word for five. The deservedly most authoritative book on Indo-European antiquities (Indo-European and the Indo-Europeans, p. 746) states that the numeral “five” can be etymologized as “hand, five fingers,” which, allegedly, points to an archaic system of counting on the fingers. The authors compare finger and Hittite pankur “total, clan” and refer to two influential predecessors. Yet this reconstruction has no support in the rich ethnographic material on the subject, for in counting, individual fingers appear more important than their sum viewed as a whole. I am not aware of any case in which the hand is named after the fingers. And of course, the troublesome r is ignored in this etymology. See also the section on nail below.

Toe. The idea that toe is the last syllable of Latin digitus strikes me as bizarre. How could two thirds of digitus be amputated under stress, to produce a full-fledged Germanic noun, whose original form was approximately taihwōn? Equally improbable is the derivation of grass, so obviously related to green and grow, from a Greek word. The most recent DNA research, I am constantly reminded by our correspondent, sheds light on the movement of the Neolithic population and supports the origin of our basic words directly from Greek, thus bypassing the hassle with cognates. According to this opinion, even eeny-meeny is from Greek. Though the counting out rhyme emerged in texts very late, it is of course much older than its first attestation. But is it pre-historic, that is, many thousand years old? If such is the fruit of this cutting edge research, I’d rather keep my distance from it, at least for a while. A phrase from an old novel surfaced in my mind: “The futile pastime of misguided acumen.”

Finger as metaphor. Ion Carstoiu, an active and prolific Rumanian etymologist, called my attention to Max Müller’s observation that “finger” is a widespread metaphor for sunrays, tree branches, etc. (compare what was said on toe and mistletoe in the previous post). He believes that this fact can also throw light on the origin of the word for “finger” in various languages. In his research, he casts the net widely and, among other things, concentrated on the “finger/sun” connection. As far as the etymology of Germanic fingraz is concerned, the paths of fingers and sunrays do not seem to cross.

The finger nail, as opposed to the finger, is indeed pink. Hence the Greek name of the onyx. This agate is a similar color. Agate 12 by James St. John, CC by 2.0 via Flickr.

Nail (Dutch nagel, German Nagel, etc.). The distant origin of this word, whose congeners can be found in many languages, is unknown. The root was nog-, with o sometimes preceding n (as in Greek: compare Engl. onyx). In the context of the present discussion, only one detail should be mentioned. If Lithuanian has preserved the most ancient meaning of the word, this meaning was “claw.” A look at the claws in their entirety produced the idea of a foot. Hence Proto-Slavic noga– “foot” (Russian noga, stress on the second syllable, still has the same meaning, except that Slavic does not distinguish between “foot” and “leg”). But such a collective meaning is hardly probable for “hand,” because toes are seldom or never thought of as individual entities, while fingers are. That is why I find the comparison of Hittite pankur and Germanic fingraz unrevealing.

Around the word for “man”

The Irish word bean ~ ben “woman” has the plural man, and the group mn appears in the declension of this noun. The question was whether this man is related to Germanic man-. No, it is not. Bean is related to the word for “woman” all over Indo-European: Gothic quino and qens, Greek gunē (compare gynecology), etc. The most ancient form of this word must have sounded approximately as gwen ~ gwēn. In the further development of the Indo-European languages, the initial group gw sometimes survived (English still has quean and queen, with k from g by the First Consonant Shift; Gwendolen ~ Gwendolyn has nothing to do with it: gwen means “white”), and in others lost the first or the second element. Greek has g-, while Irish preserved w and changed it to b. But when Old Irish b came in contact with n, it was assimilated to m. Hence Old and Modern Irish mna, man, and so forth, looking deceptively like English man.

Swedish gumma “Granny, etc.” is another product of assimilation: the original form was gudmoder, literally, “good mother.”  This is how Engl. gossip, which meant “familiar acquaintance; old garrulous woman,” from god- and -sib (sib, as in sibling, god “God”), acquired its present form. Thus, in gumma, once again, ma– is not related to man. (Thank you for two such interesting questions!).

Swedish gumma: certainly not a man! Happy Birthday Gumma by shannonpatrick17, CC by 2.0 via Flickr.

Sour grapes. It is quite true that the English word sour furnishes no information about the use of the relevant epithet in Hebrew and Greek. I only wanted to note that sour is an extremely rare epithet in the King James Bible. As regards the idiom sour grapes, the languages that follow La Fontaine speak about green, rather than sour, grapes. Caxton (1484) wrote sour. Aesop’s epithet seems to mean “unripe.”


Mr. Paul Alpers has pointed to the curious difference in usage between support and sponsor when used as noun and verb. The program, we say, is supported by…, but those who support it are sponsors, not supporters. (Compare the phrase sponsored ad.) Can anyone explain why the verb sponsor seems to have some unwanted connotations that the noun does not?

Question to our readers: balapong

I received a question about the origin of the word balapong “soap stone.” The word has been around since at least 1838, but I could not find any information on the etymology of the term. Please help.

Feature image credit: user1496664293 from Pixabay.

Recent Comments

  1. Joseph

    The boy in the picture has amazing expression. Good photo. Very nice.

  2. John Cowan

    I’d say it’s supporter that has the problematic meaning, as in the old joke: “Oh, I root for all the teams. I guess you could call me an athletic supporter.”

  3. Maggie Catambay

    Your gleanings are very interesting this month!
    One quibble–When my brother and I were tots, Mom spread out shelf paper on the kitchen floor and poured fingerpaint on it. What a joy it was to swirl our hands in the bright thick paint changing the design over and over until it got too dry. My latest painting has some part done with the finger smudges and fingernail scratches for special effects.

  4. Yves Rehbein

    Compare “Pingo (pinxi, pictum, pingere; from the root pict– we have depict, picture, and so forth)” against pungo and En punch in the sense “to print”.

    > Finger never meant “brush” or any other implement, and among the many words having the root ping- ~ pict- not a single one designates a body part.

    What about … pigtail? The etymology of pig is yet unknown (an irregular allusion to *pekw-, Ger “Vieh”, domestic animal?). The suffix in “needle” is instrumental. Pigtails have been used as brushes in fact. Mind blowing.

  5. Yves Rehbein

    > How could two thirds of digitus be amputated under stress, to produce a full-fledged Germanic noun, whose original form was approximately taihwōn?

    Compare Ger “dicker Zeh” (big toe, thick toe). I wouldn’t dismiss the notion, even if the phonetic correspondence to *deyk- or what it must have been is undoubtably convincing. Perhaps there was a reduplicated root.

  6. Constantinos Ragazas


    “How could two thirds of digitus be amputated under stress…”

    You severely limit your success with etymologies if you deny word abbreviations (“amputations”).

    Such a wide spread practice in the spoken language occurs even today. And I argue has occured in the distant past when words transitioned (not borrowed) from a polysyllabic language (often Greek and Latin) to typically monosyllabic language (e.g. English).

    And no, “toe” does not derive from “(digi)tus”. It derives from “toes”. But “toes” might!

    As for “grass” from Greek “grassidi”, the root here, “graw”, is attested in ancient Greek. It means “to eat”. And “grassidi” is a field where animals eat and graze.

    This has direct connection to the meaning of “grass”. Unlike “green” or “grow”. Since all plants and trees are “green”. And all “grow”.

    More likely, “green” and “grow” derive from “grass”, than the other way. And they all derive from the ancient Greek root “graw” (to eat).

    “But is it [“eeny-meeny”] pre-historic, that is, many thousand years old? ”

    Certainly “ena-me-ena” (Greek for “one-by-one”) is as old as the Greek language. And kids games are likely even older!

    So what exactly are you disputing here? The fact that such counting rhymes exist in languages where we now know Neolithic Greeks had migrated to?


  7. Stephen Goranson

    On balapong, soap-stone. An 1837 English translation by J. T. Smith, A practical and scientific treatise on calcareous mortars, from the French of Louis-Joseph Vicat, page 176, adds a note that, in Madras, “some add powdered balapong (or soap-stone).” [available at hathitrust.org] And page 353 col. one of John Shakespear, A Dictionary of Hindustani and English… 4th ed., 1849, third item from the bottom has a b-something word in script plus transliteration, a bit below a bala- word in that column, then “a kind of stone (Harris MSS), soap stone (?)” [available at books.google.com]

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