Both fingers and toes have already figured in this blog. On 20 December 2006, the post “Kissing and Dying under the Mistletoe” appeared (toe is the obvious second component of mistletoe), and more recently (on 25 September and 2 October 2019), a two-part essay on “Feeling Fingers” was published. Yet I have never made more than a passing mention of toe, though it certainly deserves a closer look. The origin of many words for body parts and organs is almost impenetrable, as the story of finger made clear. Some of the motifs familiar from that series will recur below.
To begin with, I should repeat that dividing the human body into separate parts (that is, giving a name to each “segment”) is to a certain extent arbitrary. Obviously, an eye is different from an ear, but the breast and the stomach may be viewed as one part or two. (See the posts on breastand bosom for 13 April and 20 April 2016.) The same holds for the neck, the chin, and so forth. It is far from obvious that language needs two different words for “arm” and “hand,” for “leg” and “foot,” and (here is the main point of this essay) for “finger” and “toe.” The etymology of finger is debatable, and toe fares only a bit better. In English, descriptive names exist for each finger, as evidenced by such phrases as middle finger, ring finger, and pointer finger, but only the thumb and the pinkie have denominations of their own. In sum, this little pig went to market, this little pig stayed home, and so forth. The game is long, and its rules are not always clear.
The origin of the word toe is “unknown,” that is, no agreement has been reached about it. Not too long ago, I discussed the etymology of the verbs see and hear and wrote that we would expect eye to be related to the word for seeing and ear to be related to hear. Our body parts, as we believe, should have been named for their function, but this most reasonable suggestion seldom finds support in facts. Perhaps only hand is, from the etymological point of view, a grasper, and that is what one expects it to be. Toes don’t “do” anything: they are parts of the foot, and it is hard to know where to begin a search.
Toe (Old English, Wessex, tā, Mercian tāhæ, plural tān) is an old word, because its cognates, or congeners (related forms) occur in all the Old Germanic languages, except Gothic, but from fourth-century Gothic only part of the New Testament has come down to us, and this word did not turn up in the extant text. For some reason, tā often ended in n, as evidenced by Old English mistletān “mistletoe.” Likewise, the German for “toe” is n-less (Zehe), but the Dutch forms are teen and toon. Dutch teen also means “twig.” Teen and toon may or may not be divergent senses of the same word. If we are indeed dealing with the same ancient noun, toes were called twigs (metaphorically: “toes branching out from the sole of the foot”), rather than twigs for toes. Perhaps Old English tān, along with Dutch teen, is an old plural, understood as a singular (this happened to Dutch schoen “shoe”).
Toe, so well represented in Germanic, has no obvious congeners outside this group. It is a “local” word, but etymologists, quite naturally, have tried to find related forms in some other Indo-European languages and predictably, began with Latin digitus “finger.” The oldest Germanic form of toe was possibly taiho(n). According to the standard correspondence (the constantly invoked First Consonant Shift), the expected match for Germanic h in the rest of Indo-European should be k. Digitus has g in the middle, but Latin (in)dicare “to point” (as in English indicate) is just what we need. We wonder: does the toe point to anything, and how are –dicare and digitus connected? If the original meaning of toe was “finger,” we are in good shape, but was it? What constituted the original difference between finger and toe? To validate the connection between taiho– and digitus, Latin digitus was called A VARIANT OF THE UNATTESTED FORM dicitus. The celebrated French linguist Antoine Meillet even called the digitus ~ dicitus variation doubtless, which means that subconsciously he did have some doubts about it. (No one says: “Twice two are, undoubtedly, four.”) The speakers of Latin perhaps connected digitus with indicare, but, if they did, it was a case of so-called folk etymology. The problem remains unsolved. In the extremely well-edited volume The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology (1966), the entry toe ends with the statement “of unknown origin,” but at digit, we read: “Latin digitus finger, toe, probably for *dicitus ‘the pointer’ and related to toe” (an asterisk means “an unattested, reconcentrated form”). Such inconsistencies occur even in the best books.
If toe has always meant what it means today and in the recorded old texts, it could not refer to a “pointer.” Somewhat more promising is the idea, mentioned above, that toe is either related to or is even a variant of the word for “branch, twig.” (Twig, cognate with German Zweig, is known to many from the last name Zweig and is entirely different from toe.) The origin of Gothic tains, Dutch teen “branch,” and others is disputed, to use the favorite epithet of etymological dictionaries. The proposed Sanskrit, Greek, and Baltic forms turned out to be poor matches, and I’ll skip some ingenious reconstructions that will take us too far afield but produce no tangible results.
Despite the general uncertainty, a few conclusions look reasonable. The Germanic languages (unlike Latin!) chose to have different words for “finger” and “toe,” and in general, this distinction is not universal. The origin of finger is unknown, though a few sensible hypotheses have been proposed. The Latin word digitus is also obscure. For etymological purposes its alternation with dicitius cannot be demonstrated, and digitus ~ dicitus should not be used in attempts to explain the origin of equally obscure words in other languages. We would like to assume that in the remotest past body parts were named for the work they do, but this assumption rarely finds justification. Toe may be more transparent than finger. Not improbably, toes were associated with protruding twigs on a branch.
Finger and toe often occur in English idioms, but very few of them are memorable. The most picturesque of them is to be all fingers and thumbs (with the variant all one’s fingers are thumbs). It refers to great awkwardness. Worthy of attention is the phrase to toe the line (to toe, not to tow!). The single advantage of the locution from top to toe is alliteration. In English, the thumb and the pinkie have special names, which is not a common situation in other languages. Thumb shares the root with thimble. The consonant b is parasitic (excrescent) in both words. I wonder: was there a time when the thumb needed special protection in sewing? This is not obvious, is it? Much clearer is the recommendation not to step on other people’s toes, and on this sensible piece of advice I’ll finish today’s tale.