Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Fingers or numbers

Elaine and I wondered while walking: which meaning of digit came first, finger, or number?

Answer: number.

The Oxford English Dictionary dates that meaning (“a whole number less than ten,“ &c.) to about 1400. Fingers (and thumbs and toes) don’t come along until 1644.

The word digit derives from the classical Latin digitus, which means “finger, finger’s breadth.” In post-classical Latin digitus also means “each of the numerals below ten.” And whence digitus? The OED doesn’t know (“of uncertain origin”) but suggests that the word probably comes from a variant of the same Indo-European base as the obsolete English verb tee, “to accuse.” And so I think of the children’s song: Where is pointer? Where is pointer? Here I am.

And why digitalis? Because of its finger-like flowers.

On an unrelated note, I am happy to see that the OED has a place for Clueless: “Look, he’s getting her digits!”

A tenuously related post
P Is for Pterodactyl

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