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Pinky up: Anatomically correct grammar

Aug 23, 2015

We read your emails, and we're proving it today by talking about pinkies, other fingers, and humerus bones.

One of you asked about the pinky finger.

University of Michigan English Professor Anne Curzan discovered the pinky finger comes from the adjective “pinky,” which meant small.

“It at first referred to eyes,” Curzan explains. “So people with pinky eyes … like little squinty eyes.”  

But eventually its meaning moved from our eyes to our little fingers and made its way to the United States at the end of the 19th century.

Then there's the ring finger. 

“You can trace that one all the way back to Old English, medieval times," Curzan explains. "It was a 'hring finger.' In Old English, you actually had 'h-r' as a constant cluster, so it was 'hring.'”

The index finger comes from Latin, with "index" meaning "point," says Curzan.

“It’s the same way we use index as in the pages in the back of the book where you have the words that point to places in the text,” she explains.

And because she wanted a giggle, Curzan decided to look at the origins of the funny bone – the humerus –for good measure.

That one goes back to 1842, a time when you could find a quote in the Oxford English Dictionary admonishing the reader about that specific bone, “some people mistakenly call it the funny bone.”

You might think "belly button" is newly crafted phrase, but it came about in 1934, says Curzan. 

“For most of our history as English speakers, we’ve called  that part of our body the navel."