In the Etymologies (Etymologiarum sive Originum libri viginti), compiled between around 615 and the early 630s in the form of an encyclopaedia arranged by subject matter, St Isidore (circa 560–636), bishop of Seville and Doctor of the Church, wrote the following about the names of the fingers (the original Latin words are in brackets):
They are called ﬁngers (digiti) because there are ten (decem) of them or because they are elegantly joined together (decenter iuncti), for they have in themselves both the perfect number and a very beautiful proportion. The ﬁrst ﬁnger is called the thumb (pollex) because it predominates over (polleat) the others in virtue and power. The second is called the index (index) and greeting (salutaris) or pointing (demonstratorius) finger because we generally use it for greeting and for pointing things out. The third is called the naughty finger (impudicus) because it is often used to express an offence against decency. The fourth is the ring finger (anularis) because we wear a ring (anulus) on it; it is also called medicinal (medicinalis) because doctors use it for collecting medicinal powders. The ﬁfth is called the ear finger (auricularis) because we use it to clean our ears (aures)1.
The French names of the fingers, all masculine, are from Latin:
– a finger: un doigt, from digitus
– the thumb: le pouce, from pollex, apparently from the verb pollere, to exert power or influence, to be strong
– the forefinger: l’index
– the middle finger: le majeur
– the ring finger: l’annulaire
– the little finger: l’auriculaire, but commonly called le petit doigt2.
THE RING FINGER – L’ANNULAIRE
The basis for the longstanding practice of wearing rings on the fourth finger of the left hand is an anatomical and physiological fact, according to a doctor in the Saturnalia (circa AD 400), an educational dialogue written by Macrobius, an early-5th-century Roman author:
A discussion of that very point [i.e. which hand and which finger a ring should be worn] had come to us from Egypt, and I was in doubt for a while whether to call it just an idle tale or a true explanation. But later, after consulting some books on anatomy, I discovered the truth: that there is a certain nerve which has its origin in the heart and runs from there to the finger next to the little finger of the left hand […]; and that this is the reason why it seemed good to the men of old to encircle that finger with a ring, as though to honour it with a crown3.
According to Isidore of Seville, a vein rather than a nerve leads directly to the heart:
Men have begun to wear a ring on their fourth finger starting from the thumb, since there is a vein here which links it to the heart—something which the ancients thought worth noting and honouring.
Another character in Macrobius’ Saturnalia says that he remembers having read in the works of a jurist that in the past rings were not regarded as decorations but rather were used as indications of personal identity and as expressions of will: only free men had the right to wear a ring, and they wore only one. There was no rule as to its position: it could be worn on either hand and on any of the fingers. But then the age of luxury arrived, and people began to incorporate precious gems into their rings. At that point, to avoid the risk of damaging these valuable rings, they started to wear them on their left hand, since it was less used in everyday matters. The thumb was excluded because even on the left hand it is frequently employed, so there would be a high risk of damage to the ring. Nor was the second finger acceptable, since it was naked and unprotected (nudus et sine tuitione). The third finger was ruled out, on account of its large size (magnitudo), as was the little finger, due to its smallness (brevitas). This left only the fourth finger as the natural place to wear a ring4.
The consistent tradition, going back to the Greeks and Romans, of wearing rings on the fourth finger continued throughout the Middle Ages. The English scholar and prelate John of Salisbury (circa 1115-1180) wrote the following in Policraticus:
It is well known that the ancient Greeks wore a ring on the finger of the left hand which is next to the little one. They say that the Romans, too, commonly wore their rings in the same manner. King Apion in his Egyptian books says that the reason for this practice is that when you cut and open human bodies, a custom which the Greeks call anatomas, you find a very fine nerve connecting that finger to a person’s heart. So it seemed that it was right to honour in this way such an important finger, which is joined and even appears to be united to the most important organ, that is, the heart5.
In Decretum Gratiani, a 12th-century law book, it is said, about wedding ceremonies:
Item: that a ring is given by the groom to the bride at the beginning of the ceremony happens without doubt as a sign of mutual trust or rather as a pledge of love by which their hearts are joined. For this reason, the ring has to be placed on the fourth finger because in it there is a certain vein which, it is said, carries blood to the heart.
2 A toe is un orteil in French, from Latin articulus, but is commonly called un doigt de pied, literally a foot finger. (French has other words on a similar pattern, such as papillon de nuit, literally night butterfly, for moth, and pomme de terre, earth apple, for potato.)
3 translation P. V. Davies, 1969
4 source: A Ring on the Little Finger: Andreas Capellanus and Medieval Chiromancy, 2006, by Stefano Rapisarda