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Q From Paul Mills, London: I would like to know the origin of pinkie, and when it was initially used in the US. I came across the term yesterday in speaking to an American. Is it a slang term? She stated that it is a term used to refer to the little finger.

A Its sense of the little finger is actually quite old. Curiously, though it is now often thought of as an American term, it began its life in Scotland — the first recorded example, from 1808, is in John Jamieson’s An Etymological Dictionary of the Scottish Language.

You might think that it is called pinkie because European little fingers are usually coloured pink, but this isn’t so (though its modern survival might owe something to this idea). It derives from a much older sense of pinkie for something tiny, which in turn comes from one meaning of the adjective pink. This adjective came into Scots from Dutch. It appeared first as part of the phrase pink eye for a half-shut or peering eye (from old Dutch pinck ooghen, which may well be the source of the modern Dutch verb pinkogen, to half close the eyes or squint).

In modern Dutch pink means the little finger, so it might look as though the American pinkie comes directly from it. The evidence, though, is that Scots played a key intermediate role.

The sense of the colour, by the way, came from the flower called the pink, whose name probably derives from pink eye, perhaps because of the folded petals that made the flower look a bit like a half-closed eye, or possibly from a completely separate sense of pink that referred to making holes or scalloped edges in cloth (as in pinking shears), because of the crinkled edges of the petals.

[My thanks to Harry Lake for sorting out the Dutch word senses.]

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 29 Sep. 2001

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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Last modified: 29 September 2001.