Thumbs and inches

I discovered today that the French word for thumb, pouce, also means inch, which makes sense as the length of the inch is apparently based on the width of a man’s thumb.

Related expressions include:

– se tourner les pouces, se rouler les pouces = to twiddle one’s thumbs
– manger sur le pouce = to grab a quick bite to eat (“to eat on the thumb”)
– déjeuner/dîner sur le pouce = to have a quick lunch/dinner (“to lunch/dine on the thumb”)
– donner un coup de pouce à quelqu’un = to help someone out (“to give a blow of the thumb to sb”)
– mettre les pouces = to throw in the towel; to give in; to give up (“to put the thumbs”)

The word inch comes from the Latin word uncia (a twelfth; ouce; inch), as does the word ounce, which is a twelfth of a troy pound [source]

The word for inch is the same as the word for thumb in Italian (pollice), Dutch and Afrikaans (duim), and Czech and Slovak (palec). How about in other languages?

14 thoughts on “Thumbs and inches

  1. So I guess an inch used to be smaller than it is now… I have pretty big hands/ fingers and an inch is quite a lot wider than my thumb!

  2. An inch is the length from the end of the thumb to the first joint where the thumb bends, not the width of the thumb.

    Always wondered about the German.

  3. The Welsh for inch is modfedd, being derived from bawd = thumb. (-aw- often becomes -o- in compounds and derivatives; nasal mutation turns b- to m-.

    cf. troedfedd = foot (unit); troed = foot (organ).

  4. “So I guess an inch used to be smaller than it is now… I have pretty big hands/ fingers and an inch is quite a lot wider than my thumb!”

    @Adrienne: I think it is probable that the measurement is based on a typical male thumb. I have fairly small hands, for a man, but I have fat, lumpy thumbs that are very nearly an inch wide at the knuckle.

  5. “An inch is the length from the end of the thumb to the first joint where the thumb bends, not the width of the thumb.”

    @Gary: Sorry – I missed your comment. In that case, thumbs must have been shorter when the inch was standardised.

  6. Thumb in Spanish is (dedo) pulgar – inch is pulgada – obviously a connection, but there’s no verb pulgar that I know of, so the connection isn’t all that clear.

  7. “Thumb in Spanish is (dedo) pulgar – inch is pulgada – obviously a connection, but there’s no verb pulgar that I know of, so the connection isn’t all that clear.”

    The -ada ending in Spanish is not always a past participle, is it? It quite often seems to denote something made or derived from another thing, e.g. limon(lime) => limonada. Pulgada is in keeping with this trend.

  8. Danish and Norwegian
    Inch: tomme
    Thumb: tommel, tommelfinger, or tommeltot(t)

    Swedish
    Inch: tum
    Thumb: tumme

  9. The Finnish word for inch, tuuma, comes from Swedish. The thumb is called “peukalo”.
    There is also an unrelated Finnish word “tuuma” which means a thought or an idea.

  10. Actually, now that I think of it, pulga means flea in Spanish – there might be a connection there – it’s easier to derive an -ada form from that base than it is from a stolidly unverbal pulgar.

  11. In Tamil, an inch is ‘அங்குலம்’ (angulam) from the Sanskrit ‘angula’, which means ‘finger’.

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