The word “thrill,” when it came into the English language, originally meant “to pierce.” In The Faerie Queene, for instance, knights are always thrilling one another through with lances, swords, and other sharp instruments. In a joust or duel, you’d most certainly want to be the one who’s thrilling rather than the one who’s being thrilled. It also meant “hole”—that is, a place where someone or something has been thrilled. The astute reader may already have noticed a connection with the word “drill.” 

Our current use of the words “thrill” and “thrilling” is a figurative extension of the original: when you are thrilling, you feel as if you have been  pierced through with joy or excitement. “Thrill” is one of those words for which a figurative use took over so completely that we hardly ever think about the original, literal meaning. Two other examples of this phenomenon are ardentand flagrant, both of which used to mean literally “burning” or “on fire”—as in, “Call the fire department! My house is flagrant!”

Anyway…at the end of Book I of The Faerie Queene, the Redcrosse Knight gets mixed up with a dragon of whom it is said, “flames of fire he threw forth from his large nosethrill.” And now you know where the word “nostril” comes from. Your nostrils are the places where holes appear to have been drilled in your nose.

I know what you’re thinking: you can’t talk about the nostril without talking about the index finger. There, too, is an interesting story. The word indexderives from the Latin in (towards) + dicare (to say)—indicate. The index finger is the finger you use to indicate things with—that is, to point with. So index finger and pointer finger mean exactly the same thing. A stock market index, like the Dow Jones Industrial Average or the S&P 500, is a sample that hopes to indicate what the whole stock market is doing. The index in the back of a book is a list that indicates or points you to the place where you can find specific topics. (And, for what it’s worth, every time you consult an index, you run your index finger up and down the column to find what you’re looking for.)

This brings us to the pinkie, perhaps the most beloved of the fingers. The word pinkie has no direct connection to the color pink. Rather it is a Scots adjective meaning small or diminutive. The Scots phrase pinkie een refers to eyes that are half-closed or narrowed. The Scots, apparently got the word from the Dutch. The phrase pinck ooghen (half-shut eyes) in Old Dutch has become the Modern Dutch verb pinkogen, to squint. And here’s something that surprised me very much: the ocular malady pinkeye gets its name not from the fact that it makes your eyes look pink, but from the fact that it makes your eyes look half-shut or small—pinck ooghen or pinkie een

And while we’re on the subject, the word pink was the name of a flower in English long before it was the name of a color. Various kinds of dianthus are called pinks…and not because they are pink in color. They were probably called pinks because they were small (see previous paragraph), and possibly even because they looked like small eyes, pinck ooghen. The fact that the French word for carnation is ouillet (literally small-eye) supports this idea. In any case, the word pink didn’t start being used as the name of a color (the color of pinks) until the eighteenth century.

At the other end of the hand is the thumb, which comes from an Old-English word thuma, which itself derives ultimately from the same proto-Indo-European root that also gave rise to the word tumor and tumescent. The thumb is the swollen finger. But to me the most interesting thing about the word thumb is the fact that it’s not called a finger at all. The other four manual digits are called fingers but the thumb is just a thumb. Of your pedal digits, the big one, the most thumb-ish one, is just called your big toe. Why doesn’t it get a separate name? I think it’s because the thumb actually is distinct from the fingers insofar as it is opposable—a fact that makes a huge difference in the way we human beings navigate the world. There was a Far Side cartoon in which two cows are sitting on a sofa in a living room, and a telephone across the room is ringing. One cow says to the other, “Well, there it goes again… And we just sit here without opposable thumbs.” Those opposable thumbs do make a big difference.* The big toe really is just a bigger version of a toe. It has no special powers, and it confers no special powers (such as the ability to pick up a telephone). A thumb, however, is quite another thing; it merits its own name.

Finally, all this talk of toes makes me think of my friend Andy Gullahorn’s song “Roast Beef.” In this video, Andy talks (and sings) about the challenges posed by the fact that, aside from the big toe we don’t have the ready vocabulary for distinguishing among the other four toes. 

* Bonus Fact: The only non-primate without opposable thumbs is the opossum.

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