Annulary • Your annulary is your ring finger. The word comes from the Latin annulus, meaning “ring.” Annulary entered English in 1623 from a French translation of The theatre of honour and knighthood; or, a compendious chronicle and historie of the whole Christian world, by Andrew Favine. This same document tells us that this same finger was once called the “physician finger,” from the Latin digitus medicus, and that it was also called the “leech finger,” since doctors were known as “leeches” before they were called “physicians.” Curiously, both doctors who drew blood and creepy little blood-sucking invertebrates were known as “leeches” from since around the year 900, yet quite probably each came to this name from different root words. The phrase “physician finger” came about because the ring finger was thought to be home to a particularly good vein for bloodletting, one that communicated directly with the heart. If you possess visible veins on the back of your hand, you will notice that one of the most obvious ones does line up roughly with the ring finger. The supposed association between the heart and this finger is the reason that it is the finger we honor with our wedding rings.
Apollo • In palm reading, the ring finger is associated with the Greek god Apollo and is supposed to signify generosity and sense of self. A ring finger that is too long is believed to indicate a feeling of superiority that leads to interpersonal conflict; too short a ring finger is supposed to indicate a lack of trust in others. Apollo was a good-looking god but not a very steadfast one. For instance, having kidnapped and seduced (today we might call it “raped”) a young Athenian princess named Creusa, he then abandoned her and the child she bore him—despite the fact that Apollo’s sister Artemis was supposed to be the special protector of young women. Then again, in those days it was pretty common for gods to act like total inconsiderate jerks even while they were performing miraculous acts such as seeing into the future or slaying giant magic pythons. In spite of Apollo’s bad conduct, today the term Apollonian means “harmonious and well-balanced.”
arm • In his book The Mother Tongue, Bill Bryson explains that many words in Old English (also called “Anglo-Saxon”) were pushed into obsolescence by Norse and Norman words during the first thousand years of the development of English. He estimates that only about 1 percent of the words contained in The OED are from that original Old English stock but asserts that these surviving words are the most fundamental in the language. Arm is one of them. It goes back to Old English, first appearing circa 950 in the Lindisfarne Gospels, arguably one of the most beautiful documents in existence. (See breast, pp. 136–37.) The relevant line reads, “He onfeng him on armum his,” which is to say, “He took him up in his arms,” referring to Simeon’s recognition of the baby Jesus as the Messiah. Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519) created a famous sketch, known as the Vitruvian Man, showing that the spread of people’s arms almost exactly equals their height. The name came from the fact that the first recorded observation of this relationship occurred in a book on architecture by the Roman Marcus Vitruvius Pollio (circa 90 to 20 BCE). The word arm reaches back to an Indo-European root meaning “join” or “fit together.” The same root led to arm in a military sense. One English-Latin dictionary lists sixty-three entries containing some form of the word arm, and all but four have a sense related to military matters. The army is armed with armaments, covered in armor, and fights with the armada, hoping for an armistice. In days of old, knights sometimes wore a cloth coat over their metal armor to protect it. This “coat of arms” had an added advantage: colors and a crest on the coat made the knight known to his followers, which was especially helpful during the confusion of battle. Over time the crest itself came to be known as the “coat of arms.”
armpit • Called the “armpit” since about 1400, the space under the shoulder where the arm folds down against the chest has only been called the “underarm” since 1933. Several sources claim that underarm rose to popularity due to its use by admen, advertisers, who saw an advantage in referring to this unsavory body part euphemistically. In medicine the armpit has been known as the “axilla” since 1616.
Basilic vein • Usually just out of sight in the crook of your elbow, the basilic vein runs up the inside of the arm near the ribs. Basilic means “royal”; the word comes from Greek. Because of the mistaken belief that the basilic vein of the right arm was connected directly to the liver and that of the left arm to the spleen, the veins became main sites for bloodletting; hence, the sense of importance reflected in basilic. A church or the main room within a church is sometimes called a “basilica.” This is because in Rome the emperor sometimes donated imperial buildings (particularly halls of justice) to the Church. In the book Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, the monster lurking in the subbasement of the school is a basilisk. This word also comes from Greek; it means “kinglet.” This giant snake, which was hatched out of a cock’s egg and could kill merely by looking at its victims, was called a “basilisk” because it had a sort of crown mark or growth upon its head. This creature was not the product of the prolific imagination of author J. K. Rowling. The basilisk has been around in English literature since about 1300 and appeared long before that in ancient tales. In the Harry Potter film the basilisk’s crown is represented by several hornlike growths on the top of its head.
beau’s lines • Sometimes fingernails appear to have lines on them. The lines that run in the direction of nail growth are fine, but the lines that run across the nail are bad. Beau’s lines were named in honor of Joseph Honoré Simon Beau, who described them in 1846. These are the lines that cross the nail. They are formed when there has been such a severe and prolonged problem with a person’s health that his or her nails stop growing from time to time. Diabetes, measles, mumps, heart attack, or psoriasis (the skin disease) can cause Beau’s lines. History isn’t always fair, and although the Frenchman Beau’s name is usually applied to these lines, in fact the German Johann Christian Reil documented them in 1796, fifty years prior to their discovery by Beau. The lines that run parallel to the fingers are actually representations of the underlying nail bed, and they are completely normal.
biceps • When you flex your muscles in the mirror, it is the biceps bulging above your arm (with any luck) that make you feel empowered. The proper term for this muscle is biceps brachii; the term for the muscle inside your thigh is biceps femoris—but that muscle is hard to catch in the mirror. Biceps means “two-headed,” from bi-, meaning “two,” and caput, meaning “head.” The biceps brachii forks to connect with the shoulder at two points and thus qualifies for its name. Knowing this, you should not be surprised to learn that the muscle on the backside of the arm, opposite the biceps, is called the “triceps” because it has three points of attachment, and that its counterpart on the front of the thigh has four such points and is called the “quadriceps.”
Cephalic vein • When you look at the back of your hand, you can sometimes see veins just under the skin. When the weather is hot, when you are working hard, or when your hands are hanging down, these veins usually bulge out. These are not cephalic veins. Rather, they go by the name dorsal metacarpal veins and are a network of veins bringing blood from your fingers to veins going back up your arm. One of these is the cephalic vein, sneaking around the side of the wrist behind the thumb and occasionally visible near the skin surface. It reappears at the crook of your elbow, continues up your arm, and plunges deep just below your collarbone. The strange thing is, cephalic means “concerning the head,” and this vein doesn’t go into the head. However, physicians of days gone by used to open this vein in hopes it would assist them in curing ailments of the head—a practice no longer recommended. Another bloodletting practice involved a vein on the back of the hand near the little finger; this vein was once known as the “salvatella vein” because it was supposed to save you from whatever it was that made you unwell, salvatella meaning roughly “small salvation” in Latin.
chiro- • A Greek prefix meaning “hand.” From it we get chirapsia, which means a “friction massage with the hand”; chiromegaly, which means “to have abnormally huge hands”; chiragra, meaning “pain in the hand”; chiromancy, which means “palm reading”; and chirotony, which means “giving a blessing by extending the hands.” A chiropractor uses his or her hands to manipulate the patient’s spine. (There’s the hand again—from Latin manus this time—in manipulate, which is related to manual.) Chiropractic means “hand-effective” or “hand-practical.”
cubital fossa • The fold on the inside of the elbow joint is called the “cubital fossa.” Fossa means a “crease” or “trench.” The word cubital comes from Latin cubitum, meaning “elbow.” In the Bible there is a lot of talk of cubits. The altar should be this many cubits, the ark that many hundred cubits, and so on. A cubit is a measure of length equal to the length of one forearm—that is, around eighteen to twenty-two inches.
cuticle • Most people will recognize cuticle as referring to the dead skin at the base of their fingernails and toenails. Cuticle comes from the Latin word cuticula, which is a diminutive of cutis, meaning “skin.” Cuticle was adopted into English in 1615 and referred to the outer layer of skin over our entire bodies. As such it is applied to other things, including the outer surface of human hair and the outer surface of the exoskeleton of insects. The word’s first known use as a term for the skin at the base of the nails occurred in 1907. The area around the fingernail or toenail is also called the “perionychium” because in Latin peri means “around”—as in perimeter—and onych means “nail.”
Dactyl • From the Greek daktylos, meaning “finger,” dactyl means “finger” or “toe” in English. In poetry the beat of the verse is called its “meter” or “measure.” A metrical foot is a poet’s way of grouping syllables. If you look at your fingers, you will note that each one (except the thumb) has three sections; same with your toes. In poetry, a dactyl is a metrical foot with three syllables (the first accented, the next two unaccented). As every eight-year-old child knows, a pterodactyl was a dinosaur that could fly. (Technically, the pterodactyl was a pterosaur,
not a dinosaur.) Pterodactyl means “wing fingers” or “feather-fingers.” Like bats, pterodactyls, in their evolution, extended their finger bones into long rods that supported the skin of their wings. Dactyl was also once the name given to a piece of fruit from a palm tree; the idea being that a tree with a palm had to have fingers. Thus the name date, referring to the fruit, evolved out of dactyl.
dextral • In heraldry one doesn’t talk of the right-and left-handed sides of a crest, but rather of the dexter hand and the sinister hand. Although it is not politically correct to slight those of us who are left-handed, throughout history right-handedness has generally had the upper hand. So people who were especially skillful with their hands were called “dexterous.” There are left-handed people around today who will tell you that teachers tried to force them to write with their right hands, so the prejudice persists. The name Poindexter literally means “right fist,” since poing is French for “fist.” Dexter made the leap from Latin to English in 1562.
digit • Digits are fingers. Digits are numbers. What is the connection? When you were little, and even now when you are trying to make a point, you sometimes count on your fingers. We have ten fingers, and so our numeric system is based on that number. It is attractive to believe that Roman numerals are a written representation of fingers: I, II, III, and originally not IV, but IIII; then V, representing the thumb, or rather the angle it forms with the nearest finger; VI starting the cycle again with the second hand; and X being two Vs stuck together. However, the historical record seems to lead instead back to the Etruscans and the Attic Greeks, who counted by cutting notches into “tally sticks.” These notches became the precursors of Roman numerals—although somewhere back there someone must have counted on their fingers. Either way, for large numbers or complex mathematical problems, the system is almost as unworkable as using your fingers. The Arabic system we use today, with one symbol for each number from zero through nine (that’s ten symbols—like ten fingers), is much more amenable to arithmetic manipulation. The word digit showed up in English first in 1344, in reference to the finger, and in 1398 it was first used to refer to mathematical digits. Electronics that employ numbers were first called “digital” in 1938.
Elbow • The word elbow is a compound word based on ell and bow. Really, no kidding! An ell was originally a unit of measure, indicating a length about the same as that of a cubit—the length of a forearm. Ell referred to the forearm and is related to the Greek word olene and the Latin word ulna, which gave one of the bones in the forearm its name. As time went on, ell represented different lengths to different people: it came to refer to the span of the entire arm, and then the extent of two arms outstretched. The bow in elbow means “bend”: in archery we bend a bow, after a performance on stage we take a bow, bending at the waist; hence elbow literally means “arm bend.” All three words, elbow, ell, and bow, appeared in English circa 1000. If you “dunch” someone, you hit them with your elbow, or at least you did starting around 1240; by 1737 the same action was called to “jundy” someone. Regrettably, these two words have passed out of common use.
Finger • Although it is not certain, it is thought that the Indo-European ancestor of finger was penqe or penkwe, a word meaning five. Finger dates from 825 in English literature and is used in lots of phrases and sayings. “To keep your fingers crossed” means “to wish for luck” or “to hope for the best.” When children cross their fingers when telling a lie, the lie is somehow supposed to be all right. The origin of crossing the fingers as a symbol seems to lie in pre-Christian times. Even then there was some significance to the cross-symbol: people would cross fingers with another person to make a solemn oath or promise. Thieves have sticky fingers, but may point the finger at someone else. If you are lazy, you won’t lift a finger, and if you are rude, you will give someone the finger. If you are of African descent, you are ten times likelier than a white person to be born with an extra finger. On the flip side, if you are white, you are four times likelier to be born with webbed fingers than a black person.
fingernail • Fingernails are made of keratin, the same substance that hair is made of. They protect our fingers and give us added manual dexterity. They are certainly essential when we are itchy. Evolution has given other animals their own versions of fingernails: on the horse it’s the hoof. Fingernails grow about four times as fast as toenails, but did you know that the nails on your index finger and middle finger grow faster than the nail on your pinky? Also, if you are right-handed, the nails on that hand grow faster, and vice versa. You may know that fingernails keep growing after death. You may know it, but it’s not true. This belief arose because after a person dies, his or her skin dries out a little and shrinks back from the nail, making it appear longer.
fingerprint • Imagine, more than six billion people on earth, and each has ten fingers, and no two fingerprints are the same. Staggering! Fingerprints have long been used as a means of identification. Charles Darwin’s cousin Francis Galton was quite an expert on the subject and collected a huge number of samples in order to study such questions as whether a person’s fingerprints change over her or his lifetime (they don’t) and whether fingerprint patterns are to any extent hereditary (they are). There’s a reason we have fingerprints, but it’s not to identify us. The lines and ridges on our fingertips are there to help us get a grip on things. To help even more, these ridges secrete small quantities of oil so that our fingertips can have better contact with the things they grip—think of how hard it is to grasp objects when your hands are dry and chapped. It is this oil that produces the fingerprints we leave behind.
fingertip • We have tens of thousands of nerve endings in our hands to help us feel what we are touching. The fingertips are among the most highly populated areas on our bodies as far as nerve endings go: there are an estimated three thousand touch receptors on each fingertip. The chest, back, belly, and sides together have approximately the same number. Like the fingertips, the tongue and lips are also packed with receptors. Try this experiment. Take two pointy objects—pencils will do—and press them together against the skin of your finger. Move the points apart until you feel the pressure in two distinct areas. Try the same thing on your arm. This will give you a crude measure of how tightly packed with nerve endings each area is.
fist • A fist, as we all know, is the hand when the fingers are clenched into the palm. Fist has the sense of anger about it; punches are thrown with closed fists. The French word for fist is poing, which is related to our pugnacious. Fist also has a sense of greed and desperation since valuable things are clutched tightfistedly. In its original form, fyst, fist appeared about 900 and is thought to possibly be related to the word five, which would make sense since we use five fingers to make a fist. (See Finger, pp. 16–17.) The expression “hand over fist” also carries a sense of greed and is often used in the phrase “making money hand over fist.” “Hand over fist” has changed its meaning slightly over time. In the early 1800s it meant “to do something rapidly.” It originates from “hand over hand,” which referred to the quickest way to raise sails or move into the rigging on a sailing vessel.
forefinger • The forefinger is not the fourth finger or the most forward finger but rather the first finger (not counting the thumb). Since about the year 1000 the word fore has referred to something that went first or before, and the forefinger is usually the one used most (in combination with the thumb) when a person is picking up or manipulating things.
funny bone • If you bump your elbow in just a certain way, suddenly the fourth and fifth fingers on your hand will go all tingly and numb. This vulnerable place is called the “funny bone” because when bumped it feels so funny. The explanation is that a major nerve, the ulnar nerve, passes here very near the skin, with little protection. Funny bone has been the name of this place since 1840 and some sources claim that this originated as a pun on humerus, the Latin name for the bone between the shoulder and elbow. In 1880 the funny bone also appeared as the crazy bone, and at various earlier times the point on the elbow has also been called the “noop” and the “rotula.”
Copyright © 2007 by Charles Hodgson. All rights reserved.