The Air at the Top of the Bottle

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The Names of the Toes

January 9th, 2009 · 12 Comments

English has no names for the toes.  Each finger has a name; the fifth has at least three: little, pinky, and auricular.  But the toes are anonymous.

English isn’t alone in this; most languages see no reason to name toes.  The only exception I know of is Swedish, which, thanks to a nursery rhyme, lists Lilltåa, Tåtilla, Kroknoso, Tillerosa, and Stortimpen.

The usual explanation is that toes don’t need names, since we don’t discuss them individually.  We deploy them as a team.  That may be; but other body parts we seldom discuss have names: the philtrum, for example.

Besides, some specialists could use more precise terms: chiropodists, podiatrists, fetishists, reflexologists.  Spiritualists may practice toe-cracking, like the Fox sisters; escapologists may practice toe-knotting, like Houdini.

I offer, then, these names for the toes, for whoever needs or wants them.  Like most names, they identify rather than describe, but I’ve tried to give them a suitable gravitas and panache.  They are, starting with the largest: oxnard, secretaire, clapmatch, jess, and matey.

Who knows?  Maybe they’ll prove useful.

(Posted by Doug Skinner)

Tags: Education · Suggestions

12 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Lisa // Jan 9, 2009 at 1:46 pm

    I often refer to my mateys as “little” and the Oxnard as “big” but I suppose it’s different than the “little finger” – after all, no one calls the thumb “big finger.”

    What about those bony protrusions some people have on the tops of their shoulders? “Croat”?

  • 2 Lisa // Jan 9, 2009 at 1:57 pm

    I wonder if it is common in other languages to refer to a group of contiguous toes as something other than toes. In English, toes are also likened to animals “piggies” and food (at least as a gerund): “shrimping” is a popular term in foot-fetish circles.

  • 3 mamie // Jan 11, 2009 at 10:07 pm

    In less language oriented cultures, toes are not even given a specific name. My brother’s Malaysian partner first told me that in Malay, the best translation for toes would be “foot fingers”. But then he said really, it’s more in the line of “thing at the end of your leg”.

  • 4 Maurice // Jan 12, 2009 at 4:33 pm

    It must be different in the U.S. — in Canada we have the big toe, claw toe, middle toe or pointer, saddle toe and nubbin. (A very small kid might say “pinky toe.”) I bet if you dug around in the States you’d find regions that use the same names.

    In New York I was on a subway platform once and heard a young lady being mocked by a friend for saying “feet.” The friend found that a hilariously pretentious word and said it over and over. When asked a better alternative, she said, “I’m keeping it real — I just say ‘leg hands.'”

  • 5 Doug // Jan 12, 2009 at 9:42 pm

    Hm, I never heard those. They’re fine terms, though.

    For some reason, Italian has a specific word for the big toe (alluce), but calls both fingers and toes by the same word (diti). It also uses the same word for the little finger and little toe (mignolo). I guess the toe names evolve differently in different cultures.

  • 6 ELBSeattle // May 5, 2009 at 1:55 am

    My best friend in high school’s mother had names for the toes: Tom Thumble, Mary Horsel, Penny Lou, (I forget the name of the 4th one) and Chick-o-pee. I have no idea if she made these names up or if they are part of a nursery rhyme or what. I am mightily taken with your names for the toes. I am going to use them, and make them household words.
    My partner and I rename the reindeer each Xmas. I forget this year’s names (already) but favorite new reindeer names of the past have been ‘Smear Campaign’ and ‘Ike and Tina Turner.’

  • 7 Mads // May 5, 2009 at 2:20 am

    It’s not only Sweden, but most of the Scandinavian countries give each toe a name. Though more or less nursey rhyme’ish, these terms are still used by adults, so I guess that counts.

    And to make things clear, I am from Denmark.

  • 8 Doug // May 7, 2009 at 11:14 pm

    I wonder which languages name them? I’ve seen some linguistic trivia on the way different languages define colors (Welsh apparently has no word exactly corresponding to our word “blue,” etc.); maybe someone has studied toes.

  • 9 Angela // May 21, 2010 at 12:00 pm

    Today’s Plonsky theme is mascots. I posted a 3-toed monkey cartoon and named him Oxnard Secretaire Clapmatch.

  • 10 Alexandre // Sep 8, 2011 at 11:16 am

    You can always designate them individually by their respective latin names which are, starting from the anterior side of the foot:

    – Hallux
    – Secundus
    – Tertius
    – Quartus
    – Quintus

    I like specially the Quintus, it gives my pinky somewhat of an august quality!

  • 11 George // Sep 23, 2011 at 1:13 am

    In Malayalam ( language in Kerala,India) too, ‘toes’ are translated as ‘foot-fingers’, and recently I had a tough time trying to convince a five-year-old that the toes are never called fingers, but he was vehemently opposing me because his teacher had not forbidden him to call the toes fingers !!!

  • 12 Hi, my name is…Toe. « // Oct 15, 2011 at 5:42 am

    […] thankfully not the first and I’m somewhat worriedly not the last to wonder: what are the informal names for toes in […]

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