The Grammarphobia Blog

Pinkies up

Q: Is my little finger my “pinkie” because it’s pink or because it’s little?

A: Just when we think we’ve been asked every question under the sun, a new one pops up in our inbox.

So why is the digitus minimus called a pinkie? We call the little finger a “pinkie” because it’s small, not because it’s pink (and, of course, not all pinkies are pink).

The word comes from Scots English. The Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest citation is from the first edition of John Jamieson’s An Etymological Dictionary of the Scottish Language (1808).

Jamieson, who was an antiquary and philologist, defined the word this way: “Pinkie, the little finger; a term mostly used by children, or in talking to them.”

The Scots term may have originated in the nursery, but it soon graduated. In his novel The Life of Mansie Wauch, Tailor in Dalkeith (1828), the Scottish poet and physician David Macbeth Moir wrote: “His pinkie was hacked off by a dragoon.”

The OED says “pinkie” (also spelled “pinky” and occasionally used for the little toe) is derived from an earlier noun, “pink,” a now obsolete 16th-century Scottish word for “a very small person or creature; a brat; an elf.”

In the 17th century, this same word was used in Scotland to mean a very small thing, like a speck or tiny hole. Until the 18th century, the word was spelled “pinck” or “pinke.”

All of these Scottish words are of “uncertain” origin, the OED says. But there could be a Dutch connection. As the OED notes, similar words in Dutch and West Frisian (pinck, pink, pinke) had been used earlier to mean the little finger.

The original Dutch pinck is described as “of unknown origin, perhaps originally children’s language.” The modern Dutch for the little finger, pinkje, emphasizes the littleness idea by adding the diminutive suffix -je (similar to our suffixes “-y” and “-ie”).

The OED doesn’t go so far as to say the Scottish word came from Dutch. But some etymologists make the leap. The Chambers Dictionary of Etymology says “pinkie,” meaning “the smallest finger,” was “borrowed from Dutch pinkje, diminutive of pink little finger.”

As we said earlier, the color pink is no relation—at least not directly. The color was named after a garden flower, the pink (a dianthus).

Chambers explains: “About 1720 the plant name began to be used attributively in the sense of having the color of the garden pink when pale or light red, of a pale rose color.”

The name of the flower, which we have in profusion in our garden, was first recorded in the late 1500s, but we don’t know its origin.

The OED says there may be a connection with an old use of “pink” to mean “pink eye” or “little eye.” Or perhaps the flower got its name because of its jagged edge, since the verb “pink” once meant to ornament by cutting holes or slits.

The verb “pink” now means, among other things, to cut with a zigzag edge, the kind of finished edge you get when using pinking shears or scissors.

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