How the 'Ring Finger' Got Its Name
Quick question: what is more romantic than earwax and leeches? If your answer to this question is “Why, nothing, of course!” then we have an etymological history that has your name written all over it.
We occasionally receive queries from readers on the subject of love. Some of these, such as “how long does love last?” are outside of our purview. Others, such as the questions we receive on the subject of the ring finger ("Why do we call it the ring finger?" and "Is this the official name for that finger?"), we are better equipped to answer.
There is no official name in English for any of our fingers. As the years have rolled by, each of our digits has seen various names come and go. But ring finger is currently the most common way of referring to the finger that lies between the pinkie and the middle finger on each hand (and it is not colloquial, slang, or otherwise frowned upon). We have referred to this finger as the one that the ring goes on since Old English, when it was called the hring finger.
A possible explanation for why the ring goes on that particular finger may be found in a 17th century translation of an earlier book by the Dutch physician Levinus Lemnius:
Hence the Antients had a custome, to wear a ring of gold on that finger, and to adorn it so above the rest: Because a small branch of the Arterie, and not of the Nerves, as Gellius thought, is stretched forth from the heart unto this finger, the motion whereof you shall perceive evidently in women with child and wearied in travel, and all affects of the heart, by the touch of your for finger. And this may seem absurd to no man; for I use to raise such as are fallen in a swoond, by pinching this joynt, and by rubbing the ring of gold with a little Saffron, for by this a restoring force that is in it, passeth to the heart, and refresheth the fountain of life, unto which this finger is joyn’d.
—Levinus Lemnius, The Secret Miracle of Nature in Four Books, 1658
Some thought that the simple wearing of a ring on this finger would alleviate ailments, while others thought that the finger (or area around it) needed to be pinched. And others recommended somewhat more stabby methods.
Between the little finger and the leech finger is letting of blood, that greatly availeth against all Feavers, tertians and quartians, and against the flames and divers other lettings, that come to the paps and milt.
—Godfridus, The Knowledge of Things Vnknowne, 1663
The above citation brings us to the leeches. One of the many names that this ring finger has had over the centuries is leech finger. This makes much more sense when you realize that leech is a very old term for a physician or doctor (the bloodsucking annelid worm is called by this name because of the habit that physicians had of sticking them onto patients, in order to remove unwanted blood). In addition to the not very euphonious leech finger, the ring finger has been called the leechman finger, the medical (and medicinal) finger, the physic (and physician) finger, the annular finger and the heart finger. For a brief period of time in the 17th century it was even called, with no apparent sense of irony, the nameless finger.
A Semi-circle gross in the bottom of the Annular finger, discovers an unhappy man, and of evil mind, and resolution.
—Richard Saunders, Palmistry, the Secrets Disclosed_, 1663
To cure the faintness of the Heart. 'Tis good to press and bend the joint of the Heart or Physick-finger, or to rub the same with a piece of Gold and Saffron: for from this finger, the vertue goes to the Heart.
—T.K., The Kitchin-Physician, 1680
Q. Why is the Ring put on the fourth finger? B. Because that is called the heart finger, and hath (they say) a veine in it which reacheth to the heart, so to signifie the hearty, and constant love which ought to be betwixt man and wife.
—Henry Turberville, An Abridgement of Christian Doctrine, 1648
Put thy namelesse finger in the wound, and make therewith three crosses upon the wound, and say five Pater nosters, five Aves, and one Credo, in the honour of the five wounds.
—Reginald Scot, Scot’s Discovery of Witchcraft, 1651
At least one person reading this now is doubtless muttering "Where’s the earwax? I was told there would be earwax in this article." Fine: here is the earwax quote:
The laste finger and leaste of all, is called the eare finger, because it is commonly vsed to make cleane the eares.
—Johannes Indagine, Briefe Introductions, both Naturall, Pleasaunte, and also Delectable vnto the Art of Chiromancy (trans. by Fabian Withers), 1558
As mentioned previously, the other fingers have all had multiple names over the years (even the thumb, which is sometimes also referred to as the pollex). The little finger was once upon a time commonly referred to as the ear finger, for the simple reason that it was the finger best able to function as a Q-Tip in the days before we had such luxury items.
So that happened.
Anyway, the pinkie seems to have not been given the same degree of attachment to the heart that the ring finger had. This is not to say that it had no significance; one 16th century book averred that if the top of the pinkie did not reach the top knuckle of the ring ringer you should “declareth that person assuredly to be a bastarde.”
When looking over the list of possible words, things, and concepts that could possibly have been chosen to adorn this digit with (leeches, earwax, and bastards) you have to admit that we got off pretty easy with ring finger.