Friday, March 13, 2009

fingers and toes from Meena

Dear Word Spy,

Why is there a special word for "thumb" but not for "big toe"? I think it's weird, when I think about it, that is.

from Meena

Dear Meena,

I know what you mean, once you start thinking about a word - any word - it starts to look weird.

"Thumb" seems to have come from a word hundreds of years back that meant "fat" or "swollen" , so thumb was short for "fat finger." In Spanish, that's what they call the thumb - dedo gordo "fat finger."

And actually in Spanish, and quite a few other languages, they don't have a separate word for "toes" either - fingers and toes are both called dedos. Etymologists (people who study the history of words) think that the English word "toe" way back came from a word "ta" which was also used for fingers.

And then they think MAYBE the word for finger came from a word that meant "five". Because people (even nowadays!) use their fingers so often for counting, you could see how the two ideas could start to get mixed up.

Gosh, what a complicated answer - and I still don't know why we don't have a special word for "big toe". Hey - I know - why don't you make one up? Like, um, "groog". So you could say:

"Ouch! I just stubbed my groog on the wall!"

What do you think? I bet you could think of some other ideas....

your pal, the Word Spy

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