Monday, March 13, 2017


Finger Names in Greek

Erasmus, Adages II iv 91, in Collected Works of Erasmus, Vol. 33: Adages II i 1 to II vi 100, translated and annotated by R.A.B. Mynors (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1991), pp. 234-235, with notes on p. 419:
Plutarch5 in the essay he called 'How a man may become aware of his Progress,' writes that it was an old custom to learn by heart the names of the fingers, and use these when frightened as though they would help. I will copy his actual words: 'Some people get by heart the names of their own fingers and use them as a protection against terrors, quietly repeating each one in turn, as if it were a remedy against ills.' The names of the fingers in Greek are given by Gellius in his Attic Nights.6

5 Plutarch] Moralia 85B. Erasmus has been misled here, as in Parabolae col 583 (CWE 23:188), by an error in the Aldine Plutarch; it should be 'the names,' not 'of one's own fingers' (idiôn daktylôn) but 'of the Idaean Dactyls' (Idaiôn Daktylôn), mythical gnomes who lived on Mount Ida in Crete...

6 The Greek names of the fingers are not in Aulus Gellius; they can be found in Pollux, Gnomasticon 2.145.
Gnomasticon is a misprint for Onomasticon.

Donald C. Swanson, "Modern Greek Corrections to Buck's Dictionary," American Journal of Philology 78.4 (1957) 401-413 (at 403-404):
4.34 (FINGER) Modern Greek shows some dialectal and individual differences in the names of the fingers. A dialect atlas of Greece would have to include these terms on its list. It is unfortunate that Buck did not give the other finger names; he lists only THUMB. A few days' research on this semantic area revealed a preliminary conclusion that in many European languages the 'ring finger' has no name, or no common name, or only an artificial name. Likewise the middle finger, for which French for example has the obviously learned Latinism médius. The little finger seems to be so called in most European languages. There is much complication in this whole area, and very likely a sizable dissertation could be written on the subject. The modern Greek equivalents, so far as I have been able to determine them, are the following:

a. 'forefinger' δείχτης from the verb δείχνω (ancient δείκνυμι) 'point out,' but the ancient noun is λιχανός from the zero grade of the verb λείχω 'lick,' plus suffix. Is the modern word a recent coinage? Unlikely. Andriotis3 does not list the word.

b. 'middle finger' μεσαῖος. The ancient is μέσος, as found in Plato and Aristotle. (See Liddell-Scott-Jones, s.v.)

c. 'ring finger' παράμεσος, also not listed in Andriotis. It seems to be a post-classical coinage, since it is first found in Apuleius (II A.D.), and in three contemporary Greek technical writers.4

d. 'little finger' μικρό δάχτυλο (as in ancient Gk.: Aristotle has μικρὸς δάκτυλος).

In leaving this subject I should mention that many foreign-language-to-English dictionaries which I have consulted lacked names for several of the fingers, giving chiefly or only thumb and forefinger. Is this because of the apparent triviality of the subject, or were the compilers culture-bound to English, this language using only phrases for the last three fingers? This may be an unexplored lexicographical problem.

3 For this reference and others see bibliographical remarks at end. [pp. 412-413: N.P. Andriotis, Etymologiko Lexiko tis Koinis Neoellinikis (Athens, 1951)]

4 Apuleius, Metam., X, 21 (ed. R. Halm [1913], p. 252 note; Adlington-Gaselee in the Loeb [1915], p. 596). These two editors excise the passage from their texts, but regard it as authentic since two MSS carry it in the margin. The pertinent words are: 'Ac dein digitis, hypate, lichano, mese, paramese, et nete' (sic Gaselee). The passage is defective and difficult but the names of fingers, and/or of tones (of a five-stringed instrument) named from the fingers, are clearly intended.

The Greek references (Liddell-Scott-Jones) are as follows: Pollux, II, 145, Rufus Medicus, Onom., 83, Galen, II, 264. By a curious coincidence all these authors, including Apuleius, are of the 2nd century A.D.
Pollux, Onomasticon, ed. Erich Bethe, Fasc. I (Leipzig: B.G. Teubner, 1900), pp. 127-128 (2.145):
ὀνομάζονται δὲ οἱ δάκτυλοι μικρόc, παράμεcοc, μέcοc, λιχανόc, ἀντίχειρ ἢ μέγαc.
All of these are adjectives modifying δάκτυλος (finger) understood.


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