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Lexical Leavings

by Tom Gally



I posted the following note to the Honyaku mailing list in December 1999.

While working through the ゆ's of the Japanese-English dictionary I'm helping to check, I came to ゆび. Here's part of the entry as it originally appeared:
親指 the thumb
薬指 the ring [third] finger
小指 the little [fourth] finger; the pinkie
中指 the middle [second] finger
人差し指 the index [first] finger; the forefinger
What caught my attention were the numbers. I couldn't decide whether the middle finger, for example, is in fact the second or should be called the third. All the Japanese-English dictionaries I checked follow the same pattern as above, that is, they start counting from the forefinger, not from the thumb. To try to clear things up, I did some Web and dictionary searching.

A Web search for "fifth finger" found many hits, often with pictures, confirming that the little finger may be counted as the fifth as well as the fourth.

English-English dictionaries often avoid the counting issue. For example, here is how the New Oxford Dictionary of English defines "ring finger":
the finger next to the little finger, especially of the left hand, on which the wedding ring is worn
However, the same dictionary does let a number slip in under "forefinger":
the finger next to the thumb; the first or index finger
Most interesting was Webster's New World College Dictionary, which manages this contradictory pair:
pinkie the fifth, or smallest, finger
forefinger the finger nearest the thumb; index finger; first finger
One wonders how many fingers the editors of that dictionary have.

I realized that one reason for my confusion is that at least two different fingering systems are used in musical scores. For piano and other keyboard music, notes played by the thumb are marked "1" and those by the pinkie "5." For violin, guitar, and other instruments for which the thumb of the left hand is normally not used, the forefinger is "1" and the pinkie is "4." Since I play both types of instruments, I get confused, out of context, by expressions like "third finger," as I don't know which system is being used.

After consulting with the editor and going through a couple of revisions, we ended up eliminating the numbers from the glosses but adding a note describing the two different counting systems.

Another problem that came up is how to count and what to call the toes, which, of course, are also ゆび. The editor prepared a list of terms and sent it to me for checking:
親指 the big [great] toe
薬指 the fourth toe
小指 the little [fifth] toe
中指 the third [middle] toe
人差し指 the second toe
The English seemed okay to me (I hadn't known "great toe," but some checking confirmed its use). Since, unlike the thumb's ambiguous status as maybe a finger and maybe not, the big toe is unquestionably a toe, I accepted the counting system shown above. Some Web searches for "second toe" and the like confirmed that usage (and found pictures of some rather gruesome medical oddities).

What bothered me was the Japanese, especially 人差し指 for "second toe." I asked the editor if that didn't sound strange, as it conjured up images in my mind of people pointing at each other with their toes. He said it sounded okay to him, but he checked with some other Japanese at his office; one person also said it sounded okay, while another thought it sounded funny but couldn't offer another name for that toe.

Japanese dictionary definitions of 人差し指 and 薬指 often state explictly that the words refer to fingers. For example, here's Daijirin's definition of 人差し指:
(他人をさし示す指の意)手の親指と中指との間の指。第二指。食指(しょくし)。
However, a Web search for 足の人差し指 came up with plenty of examples of that phrase, so Daijirin's definition seems too narrow. 人差し指 stayed in our dictionary as the word for the second toe.
(December 19, 1999; April 27, 2003)