Tuesday, October 06, 2015

October 6, 2015--Fingers

I don't know how we got around to talking about fingers.

Perhaps because Rona thinks she broke the pinkie on her left hand. Or maybe, she thinks, since the knuckle is a little swollen and painful, it's an early case of arthritis.

"Pinkie?" Al said, "Did you ever think why we call our smallest finger the pinkie?" He was trying to steer us away from medical talk.

"Or, for that matter," Ken, happily redirected, said, "why we call it the baby finger? Though I guess that one is pretty obvious."

"I have no idea," I said, "Or why the thumb is named the thumb."

Sufficiently distracted, Rona mused, "What about the ring finger? Not every one has a ring there but still that's what we call it. I mean we do call it that but I wonder if in Chinese it's also called the ring finger. Do they wear wedding rings there? I don't know. Or wedding rings at all on another finger? The name ring finger feels cultural to me."

"To complete the picture," John chimed in, "there is the index or pointer finger and then the most famous of all--the middle finger. That one as far as I know doesn't have a more descriptive name, but as we know plenty of people put it to good use." He winked.

"I know you like to look things up," Al said to me, "So fingers are your assignment for today."

Which I happily took on when back at the house I did some googling about the names of fingers.

The thumb first since in Latin finger notation it is considered the first of the five fingers though it works quite differently than the rest. It's "opposable," which means it sits opposite the other four and flexes toward them when in use. The others, curl or flex toward the palm. It is claimed that our and other primates' opposable thumbs are what give us many great advantages over other animals that have finger-like claws that are good only for simple forms of grasping. Bears, for example, are thus not much good at gripping.

The etymology of thumb doesn't take this feature into account since from Old English it simply means "swollen part." Swollen by nature, not by arthritis as with Rona's pinkie.

About that pinkie. It appears not to have a very interesting derivation. It comes from the Dutch word pink meaning "little finger." Nothing enlightening about that obvious perception. Though I wonder what the Dutch word is for the color pink.

The index finger or pointer or forefinger is a bit more interesting. Etymologically to means to "make known," presumable by pointing to something that one wants to make known.

Most interesting to me is the fourth or ring finger. Before the flowering of medical science, people believed that a vein ran directly from it to the heart. In Latin that blood vessel was called the vena amoris. Nice. And obviously why in some cultures we place wedding rings there.

The Chinese, to complete this, traditionally do not wear wedding rings but use them during the marriage ceremony itself. On the ring finger. They too must have notions about that phantom vega amoris.

I couldn't resist 

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