The Grammarphobia Blog

­­The fingerprints of history­

­Q: At what point did the definition of the word “fingerprint” expand from its Scotland Yard sense to include any distinctive set of characteristics that can identify something?

A: You’ll be surprised to hear this, but the term “fingerprint” was used in a wider, figurative way BEFORE Scotland Yard began using fingerprints to identify criminals.

The first published reference for the term in the Oxford English Dictionary (from an 1859 issue of the North American Review) uses it in the literal sense of an impression made by a finger.

The citation refers to the Swiss Chapel of St. Verena, “where the finger-prints of the young maiden still remain in the rock, showing how desperately she resisted the Devil, who sought to carry her off.”

However, the next reference in the OED uses the term in a broader figurative sense.

In an 1884 article in the journal Christian World, Dr. Joseph Parker writes: “There is something about the word ‘dogma’ which seems to bear the finger-prints of the pedant or the priest.”

(We’ve gone to the originals to expand on the two OED citations above.)

The first citation in the dictionary for the use of the term in reference to a system of identification is an 1891 comment by Sir Francis Galton about his “collection of analysed finger-prints.”

A year later, Galton published the book Finger Prints, which laid out a technique for classifying fingerprints.

In 1897, Sir Edward Henry modified Galton’s system, and it was adopted by Scotland Yard in 1901.

Although the use of fingerprints for identification has been around since ancient times, fingerprinting as we think of it today didn’t develop until the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

The first OED citation that refers to “the finger-print system of identification” is from a 1903 issue of the British newspaper the Daily Chronicle.

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