Have you ever looked down at your hands and wondered why your digits are called what they are? Why do we call it a “thumb” and not a “big toe finger”? What’s the story behind naming our “pointer finger” and “pinky”? The names of our fingers reveal an intriguing history that winds back centuries to Old English.
This linguistic evolution not only shows how language adapts over time, but also hints at the enduring importance of our hands in human civilization. Our fingers’ capacities are embedded in their descriptive names, whether in antique Anglo-Saxon nicknames or modern anatomical terms. The thumb, forefinger, middle finger, ring finger and pinky each have distinctive forms and functions that their names have creatively depicted throughout history.
So let’s travel back to early medieval England, where the first known names for our five digits arose. We’ll see how the language of fingers evolved from fanciful Old English nicknames to simplified modern names.
The Thumb The name “thumb” has its origins in Old English, where it was called “thuma”, meaning “thick one”. This is an apt description, as the thumb is indeed the thickest digit on the hand. The Anglo-Saxons who spoke Old English valued economy of language, and wanted words to convey clear meaning as concisely as possible. Names like “thick one” accomplished this by providing a sense of the thumb’s physicality and utility in one succinct term.
While we no longer use the word “thuma”, the modern name “thumb” retains its descriptive meaning. Out of all our digits, the thumb stands out in size and functionality. Its strength allows for firm gripping and manipulation of objects. Anatomically, the thumb’s muscles and wide range of motion give it dexterity the other fingers lack. Thumbs truly are “thick ones”, enabling our hands to hold, touch, and grasp with precision.
It’s noteworthy that while other Old English finger names dropped out of use over time, “thumb” endured. This speaks to how fundamental the thumb is to human hands. The thumb’s physical and functional uniqueness carved out a permanent place in our vocabulary and hand anatomy. Without opposable thumbs, humans could not have developed the manual skills, crafts, and technologies that advanced civilization. Our thumbs are foundational to building our world. So it makes sense that their distinctive Old English name carried forward for thousands of years.
The Index Finger
The Forefinger In Old English, the forefinger was called “scytel”, meaning “pointer”. Again, we see the economical Anglo-Saxon language labeling the finger based on its function. Of all our digits, this long finger extended from the hand was ideal for pointing. Anatomically, it is able to move more independently than the middle or ring finger. And in gestures, pointing with the forefinger allows us to nonverbally indicate people, places and objects.
Like “thuma”, the Old English term “scytel” uses a descriptor that is still highly applicable today. We continue to call this digit the “pointer finger” or “forefinger” in modern English. When you gesture to point at something, you instinctively raise your forefinger. The name endures because it so intrinsically matches the shape and purpose of this finger.
The Middle Finger
The Middle Finger In Old English, the middle finger was called “lang mann”, meaning “long man”. At some point in history, this ornamental term was phased out in favor of the simpler Modern English “middle finger”. By removing the metaphorical “long man”, we retained only the anatomical description.
But there is logic behind why our early language called the middle finger the “long man”. Of all the fingers, the middle digit is usually the longest. And its extra length means it can extend further and higher to express meaning. Just think of expressions like “flipping the bird” to insult someone with the middle finger’s unique capacity for emphasis. So while ornate, “lang mann” captured real physical properties.
The Ring Finger
The Ring Finger The most colorful Old English nickname belonged to the ring finger, originally called “gold finger”. This name referenced the custom of wearing wedding bands and rings on the fourth digit. While not used today, “gold finger” creatively highlighted one of the distinguishing characteristics of this finger.
Over time, the name was abbreviated to the plain “ring finger”. But this still describes the essential function that likely inspired the Old English “gold finger” – its role housing rings and jewelry. Beyond matrimony, our ring finger also bears class rings, championship rings, and other decorations symbolizing affiliation. Its ability to prominently display these rings led to its descriptive name in both Old and Modern English.
The Little Finger
The Pinky Lastly, the smallest outermost finger was called “lytel mann” in Old English, meaning “little man”. Like other names, this interpreted the finger’s physical form in a creative anthropomorphic way. The tiny pinky, much shorter and slimmer than the other digits, was vividly described as a “little man”.
Today, we simply call this the “pinky” or “little finger”. The modern name retains the core meaning of the Old English “lytel mann” – drawing attention to the finger’s diminutive size compared to the others. Its daintiness leads to it curling inward naturally, almost like it is shy. While the metaphor is gone, “little finger” still expresses how this digit stands out in form and function.
In Summary The names of our five fingers have their roots in descriptive Old English terms for each digit. What’s remarkable is how these ancient nicknames focused on the physical and functional uniqueness of each finger. Thumbs were “thick ones”, forefingers were “pointers”, middle fingers were “long”, ring fingers displayed “gold”, and pinkies were “little”. While some antique names dropped away, we continue using core descriptions like “thumb” and “pointer” that capture distinguishing qualities.
This reflects the enduring importance of our fingers, from medieval times to the digital age. Their specialization led to nicknames in Old English that persist in simplified form today. Our finger names reveal an evolution in language, yet hand anatomy remains constant. Perhaps that is why their names, despite shifts over time, still aptly depict the size, shape and purpose of our remarkably useful digits.