I’ve long puzzled about why the ring finger is called third finger in spite of it being the forth finger from the thumb (counting the thumb as the first, the pointing finger the second, the middle finger as the third) and the second from the little finger.

Wikipedia describes it as;

the fourth proximal digit of the human hand, and the second most ulnar finger, located between the middle finger and the little finger. It is also called digitus medicinalis, the fourth finger, digitus annularis, digitus quartus, or digitus IV in anatomy. In Chinese it’s called 无名指 - unnamed finger.

Nothing is related with “the third.”

We Japanese also call the ring finger "薬指- kusuri-yubi" meaning the finger (only) used for tasting and examining medicine.

How did the ring finger come to be called the third finger?

For your refference;

Cambridge online English Dictionary defines finger as “One of the five long parts at the end of your hand.”

Oxford online English Dictionary defines finger as “Each of the four slender jointed parts attached to either hand, or five, if the thumb is included.

Merriam-Webster English Dictionary defines finger as “One of the five long parts of the hand that are used for holding things; especially: one of the four that are not the thumb.”

  • 3
    It's not "the forth finger from the thumb", it's the third finger from the thumb. Your thumb is a digit, but not a finger. – Ronan Jul 4 '14 at 12:09
  • 1
    See Is a thumb also a finger? – RegDwigнt Jul 4 '14 at 12:13
  • 1
    @PeterShor As it happens, I don't do it that way, I start with the thumb, then index and so on. As for the OP's question, my experience is that people don't use ordinal names for the fingers, rather they use the names Peter gives. – Rupe Jul 4 '14 at 12:28
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    Also worth pointing out that according to this link the meaning of "third finger" differs between UK and US English. en.wiktionary.org/wiki/third_finger – Rupe Jul 4 '14 at 12:29
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    Anyone who plays the violin or the cello will be aware that the fingers on the left hand are numbered 1, 2, 3 and 4 (with the thumb not included in the numbering). However, piano fingering is 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 (with the thumb included in the numbering) - although in the past there was something called 'English fingering' with +, 1, 2, 3, 4. The current system was known as 'Continental fingering'. The details are in the Wikipedia article on fingering: simple.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fingering. – Peter Jul 4 '14 at 14:08
up vote 2 down vote accepted

The obvious answer is that the thumb is not a finger. Otherwise it would not be called thumb but first finger.

In German a germanic language just like English we have:

  1. Thumb --> Daumen
  2. Index finger --> Zeigefinger
  3. Middle finger (the finger) --> Mittelfinger
  4. Fourth finger / Ring finger --> Ringfinger
  5. Pinky --> Kleiner Finger (small finger)

As you can see the thumb is not called finger. So the first finger would be the index finger.

Why is this the first? Because it is the most used.

  • 2
    I think it's basically the issue of the difference of culture. I don't know about the notion of fingers among the nations of other world. To us (Japanese) the thumb is difinately a finger, not the special finger, and we don't other word than finger. – Yoichi Oishi Jul 4 '14 at 20:29
  • If the thumb is not a finger, why is the big toe still a toe?? – Gary's Student Jul 4 '14 at 20:35
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    @Gary'sStudent Because the great toe is not opposable in modern humans, that’s why. The thumb is. – tchrist Jul 4 '14 at 20:41
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    @Gary'sStudent The difference is akin to the term 'car' in english language. For an english speaker a lorry is not a car, while most often 'car' it translated to other languages the same as 'automobile', which, of course, is a superset. But strange things happen when people try to count everything. For example, when people say "We use decimal, because we have ten fingers" they count a thumb as a finger. Or "When crossing the road, first check for cars" nobody would reply "So i should ignore any lorry that i see". – v010dya Jul 5 '14 at 2:47
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    @Volodya: that reminds me of a joke about a country where they drive on the left, and have plans to switch to the right. The instructions are: "We will do a provisionary trial. On January 1 of 2015, all cars start driving on the right side of the road. If this appears to working after a year, then on January 1 of 2016, lorries will also switch to the right side." – Peter Shor Jul 7 '14 at 0:20

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