Japanese Tidbits: 指

ちょっとした日本語:指

Just a little mid-week post here. Inspired by a conversation I had the other day, I figured it’s worth tossing out there.

指(ゆび) is often translated into English as “finger”. On the hand, the five fingers (or four fingers and a thumb if you’re one of those people) are:

親指(おやゆび), the thumb. Or, directly translated, the “parent finger”. Given that it’s the thickest (like a pudgy mom or dad), or perhaps the most useful finger, it makes sense that it’s the “parent”.

さし指(さしゆび), the pointer finger. Pretty much the same in Japanese, as 指す is “to point”. Sometimes it’s written as 指し指, but that looks weird, doesn’t it?

中指(なかゆび), the middle finger. Again, same. Traditionally, the middle finger doesn’t have any negative meaning associated with it like it does in America. But, recently, everyone understands what you mean when you do it angrily. It also has the meaning of “brother” in Japanese sign language, which can lead to laughs from people who don’t know in the rare case of seeing JSL.

On that note, in general, the 親指 can be thought of as the “father”, the さし指 as the “mother”, the 中指 as the “brother”, the 薬指 as the “sister”, and the 小指 as the “baby”.

Back onto those last two fingers, the 薬指(くすりゆび) is the ring finger or “medicine finger” in Japanese. While we think of the ring finger as the place where wedding rings go, that practice is a new one in Japan. The medicine finger actually gets its name from the fact that that finger has the most gentle touch (it’s harder to apply pressure with it) and doctors would traditionally dip their medicine finger into medicine and apply it that way.

Lastly, the 小指(こゆび) is the pinky finger in American English. But more widely, it’s the “little finger”, a name it shares with the direct translation of the Japanese. Also, it just makes sense. Who came up with “pinky” anyways.

Last but not least, and the reason I wrote this post, is the fact that if you ask a Japanese person how many fingers they have, they’ll answer…

20.

指は何本ですか?

20本だろう

That’s because the toes are also considered 指 in Japanese. 手の指 and 足の指. 合わせたら、20本がある。 In American English, we’d usually say we have 10 fingers and 10 toes. With that in mind, 指 is perhaps best translated as “digit”, though that sounds a little academic to me, personally.

Japan is not unique in this distinction either. Many other languages don’t distinguish between fingers and toes, which was actually a surprise to me. But hey, we learn something new every day.

Super last but not least, when referring to toes, while they are considered 指, the most common way that Japanese people talk about them are as the つま先(つまさき), all 5 toes on a foot together. When you grab your toes (such as in the “Heads, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes” song), you’re usually grabbing your つま先. When discussing how to jump, つま先 often comes up as well. After all, we don’t really coordinate each toe. The focus is on the toes together.

Anywho, hope you enjoyed a little midweek Japanese tidbit. See you on Friday when I talk about what it means to get into the game industry.

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