|Words relating to hands
are intertwined with an extraordinary number of phrases and descriptions
in the English language. This makes it difficult to search the internet
for hand related topics - a search for "hand" also retrieves handicap,
handmade, handy, handbook, etc. The same ubiquitous multifaceted presence
in English is true for each of these words: finger, thumb,
Where did these words come from? The historical origins detailed below
are quoted from the Dictionary
of Word Origins by John Ayto. "Old English" origins date before the
Norman invasion of 1066. Interesting... word origins suggest that etymologically
the the hand has five fingers, one of which is the thumb, that wrist is
named for its twisting motion, but not because "wrist" rhymes with "twist",
and that the origin of the word hand ...is mysterious.
(Old English) Widespread among the Germanic languages (German, Swedish
and Danish all have finger, and Dutch vinger), finger
is not found in any other branch of Indo-European. It is usually referred
to a prehistoric Indo-European ancestor pengkrós 'number
of five', a derivative (like fist) of pengke 'five'.
(Old English) The thumb is etymologically the 'swollen' part - an
allusion to its greater thickness than the other fingers. Along with its
relatives German daumen and Dutch duim, it goes back to a
prehistoric West Germanic thûmon. This in turn can be traced
tum- 'swell', which also produced English tumour,
and tumult. The b in thumb appeared in the early Middle English
period, when it was still a two syllable word (thumbe), and at first
was pronounced, but it has fallen silent over the centuries. The words
thimble have related origins.
(Old English) The Indo-European ancestor of nail was nogh- or onogh-.
The latter was the source of Latin unguis (which evolved into French
ongle and Italian unghia and has given English ungulate)
and Greek ónux (source of English onyx). Both these
strands refer only to the sort of nails that grow on fingers and toes,
but the Germanic branch of the family (which has come from nogh-
through a prehistoric Germanic naglaz) has differentiated into a
'fastening pin' - originally of wood, latterly of metal. Hence English
and German nagel and Danish negl are used only for the anatomical
the tree (Old English) and the palm of the hand (14th century) are
effectively distinct words in English, but have the same ultimate source:
Latin palma. This originally meant 'palm of the hand' (it is related
to Irish lám 'hand' and Welsh llaw 'hand'), and the
application to the tree is a secondary one, alluding to the shape of the
cluster of palm leaves, like the fingers of a hand. The Latin word was
borrowed into the Germanic dialects in prehistoric times in the tree sense,
and now is wide spread (German
palme and Dutch and Swedish
as well as English palm). English acquired it in the 'hand' sense
via Old French paume, with subsequent reversion to the Latin spelling.
Hand is a widespread Germanic word (German, Dutch
and Swedish also have it), but has no relatives outside Germanic, and no
one is too sure where it comes from. Perhaps the likeliest explanation
is that it is related to Gothic frahinthan 'seize', 'pursue', Swedish
'reach' and English hunt, and that its underlying meaning is 'body
part used for seizing'. The derived adjective handsome (15th century)
originally meant simply 'easy to handle'. The modern sense 'attractive'
did not develop until the late 16th century.
(Old English) The wrist is etymologically the 'twisting' joint.
The word goes back to prehistoric German wristiz, which also produced
German rist 'instep, wrist' and Swedish vrist 'instep, ankle'.
This was derived from the base writh-, whose wr- sound seems
originally to have been symbolic of the action of twisting. Variants of
the base lie behind Old English words wreath, wrest, and
(Old English) Logically enough, elbow means etymologically 'arm
bend'. It comes from a prehistoric West and North Germanic alinobogan
(which also produced German ellenbogen, Dutch elleboog, and
Danish albue). This was a compound formed from alinã
'forearm' and bogan (source of English bow). However, there is a
further twist. For alinã (source also of Old English ell
- a measure of length equal to that of the forearm) itself goes back ultimately
to an Indo-European base el-,
ele- which itself meant 'bend'
and produces not just words for forearm (such as Latin ulna), but
also words for 'elbow' (such as Welch elin). So, at this deepest
level of all, elbow means tautologically 'bend bend'.