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The thumb has a different name compared to the other fingers (index, middle, ring, little) and it does not end with "finger".

Also, when referring to the hand, I have seen literature where it is described as "5 digits on each hand" and that is probably more accurate.

In light of that,

  • Is saying that I have "5 fingers on my left hand" technically just wrong?
  • Or is the thumb a "special" type of finger and so it is acceptable to treat it as a finger in general?

Are there any rules/guidelines related to this in English that anyone can throw light on or is it that I am just nitpicking?

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Yes, it's a finger, and a very special one at that. "Finger" and "digit" are synonymous. –  user730 Dec 22 '10 at 7:55
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@J. M.: "'Finger' and 'digit' are synonymous". Ah, but not always! When a digit is a toe... –  Jimi Oke Dec 22 '10 at 17:34
    
@Jimi: Yes, you're right... I'm more accustomed to referring to "fingers and toes" as "phalanges", you see... :D –  user730 Dec 23 '10 at 3:23
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holds up all five digits "How many fingers am I holding up?" "five" "nuh uh! Four! The thumb isn't a finger!" <- Typical exchange amongst children –  Doc Jan 13 at 16:50
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You're nitpicking ;) Seriously, I believe that the full answer to this question is "The thumb is a finger if you want it to be". The answers given so far demonstrate that some people think it is and others think it is not. It is a question about the meaning of the word "finger", and since the meaning of a word resides in what people intend and understand by it and nowhere else, we have a clear demonstration that the word is ambiguous in this respect. –  Colin Fine Mar 3 at 22:41

4 Answers 4

up vote 12 down vote accepted

The thumb can be treated as a finger but mostly within the context of fingers. Both digits and fingers are hypernyms of the word thumb. Here are my dictionary* definitions:

  • thumb

    the short, thick first digit of the human hand, set lower and apart from the other four and opposable to them.

  • finger

    each of the four slender jointed parts attached to either hand (or five, if the thumb is included)

  • digit

    a finger (including the thumb) or toe

Thus, saying you have 5 fingers on [your] left hand is not wrong but some may consider it awkward, since there is really nothing special about having five digits on either hand! Indeed, it is acceptable to treat the thumb as a finger, as I earlier alluded to, and I give a few examples to illustrate:

  • Count on your fingers.
  • He rubbed his fingers vigorously.
  • Show me your fingers!
  • Your fingernails are dirty.
  • All my fingers are cold.
  • How many fingers am I holding up on my hands?
  • 'Which finger did it bite?' 'It bit my THUMB!'
  • Her fingers flew nimbly across the keyboard.
  • Have a look at the fingering chart.
  • He fingered the steaming mug gingerly, taking quick sips in between mouthfuls of bread.

However, one would rarely, if ever, hear finger used in a singular sense to directly mean thumb. Digit[s] is rarely used in everyday conversation, and since it also includes toes, one is probably most likely going to hear/use fingers when the manual digits are involved.


*New Oxford American Dictionary, 2nd Edition

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@Jimi - What happens when referring to someone who actually has an extra appendage / finger on his hand. When describing such a hand, if i were to say i have six fingers on my left hand - is it now no longer obvious if i am including / excluding the thumb? Its not a common circumstance and hence is not subject to the obvious interpretation (atleast thats where it seems to be getting a bit opaque to me) –  InSane Dec 22 '10 at 8:34
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@InSane: Ah, a very interesting situation. I think most would take I have six fingers on my left hand to include the thumb, meaning you have one thumb, four fingers, and one extra finger on your left hand. Saying you had five fingers would probably imply you were excluding the thumb, because I really don't know of anyone who would say they had five fingers on a particular hand to just mean one thumb and four fingers on that hand. In referring to an extra appendage, I would think six fingers is more common than five fingers. Or I'd simply say extra finger! –  Jimi Oke Dec 22 '10 at 8:45
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+1 Though i must admit that i had to read your comment twice to make sure i understood correctly :-) While i agree with your point about "five fingers" implying exclusion of the thumb but i can think of at least 1 example where it doesn't - eg in case of a new born baby - doctors usually indicate something on the lines of "The baby has 10 fingers, 10 toes etc" - In this case - the ten fingers usually are inherently inclusive of the thumb as well. –  InSane Dec 22 '10 at 9:07
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You have six fingers on your right hand. Someone's been looking for you. –  Isaac Dec 22 '10 at 13:38
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Five fingers is the normal case - I don't know anyone who would interpret this to mean the person thus described has an abnormal number of digits. Inigo was looking for a guy with 6 digits on his left hand, not 7. –  Marthaª Jan 5 '11 at 0:49

Etymologically, the words finger, fist and five stem from the same Indo-European roots. It makes sense to consider there to be five fingers on each hand. Instead of relying on definitional nuances, etymology can provide a clearer and less divisive answer for this. Even tie meanings change, they wouldn't randomly jump around. Etymological changes in meaning are intuitive and understandable, like Latin spiro, meaning "I breathe", becoming the word 'spirit'.

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+1 I think this is a really good start to an answer... –  Soylent Green Jan 22 at 16:22
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This is the etymological fallacy. Whether or not the word finger is ultimately related to five tells us precisely nothing about whether the modern English word finger comprehends the thumb or not. -1 –  Colin Fine Mar 3 at 22:36
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It is also a factual fallacy, since changes in mind are not necessarily intuitive and understandable. ‘Digit’ itself is a good example of this: it originally comes from a root meaning ‘point, show’ and is related to ‘teach’ (so a digit is a ‘pointer’ or ‘shower’, which makes sense)—but with various semantic shifts, it is also the English word ‘toe’ (which doesn’t point anywhere), Greek δίκη ‘trial, lawsuit’, and Latin dīcō ‘I say’. –  Janus Bahs Jacquet Mar 4 at 1:19

It's a finger. Commonly used as such, and it is similar to the other 4 in that it is, well, a finger. It has joints, though one less than the other 4, and it has a "nail". The only real differences I see between the thumb and the other 4 fingers, which I don't find as enough to exclude it as a finger (though it is a special one), is that it is "opposable to them", has one less joint/knuckle, and is a bit thicker.

The only time I see where it is, in a way, set apart from the others is when talking specifically about the thumb, but when talking about just fingers, it is generally accepted that the thumb is included.

Another reason I find it to be a finger is that the thumb has the same kind of bone as the index/pointer, middle, ring, pinky/little fingers - Phalanges. They are all attached to the Metacarpals, which, in turn, are attached to the Carpals. The Thumb, however, does not have a Middle Phalanx, as the others do, but just because it is missing one bone, I don't think it shouldn't be considered a finger.

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Similarly, the hallux has one bone less than the other four toes, but unlike with manual digits, I have never heard anyone claim or imply that the hallux is not a toe. The only real difference between thumb vs. fingers and hallux vs. toes is that the thumb is opposable. –  Janus Bahs Jacquet Mar 4 at 1:23

No, it's a digit not a finger. It's just easier to say ""We have five fingers" instead of saying "We have four fingers and a thumb digit".

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Proof by blatant assertion? What is your evidence that this is anything other than your personal opinion? –  Colin Fine Mar 3 at 22:38

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