Nobody Knows My Toes

By Ashleigh Brilliant   |   May 21, 2020

Most of us have twenty digits, but the upper ten get nearly all the attention. Once we’ve outgrown the days of “this little piggy goes to market,” the lower ten are usually hidden in some protective footwear, and little account is taken of them – until something goes wrong.

The classic case of something going wrong is narrated by Edward Lear in his immortal epic, “The Pobble Who Has No Toes.” This reckless creature, who “had once as many as we,” scoffed at the idea of losing them all, especially since he had his own special safeguard:

“His Aunt Jobiska made him drink

Lavender water tinged with pink,

For she said, ‘The World in general knows

There’s nothing so good for a Pobble’s toes.’”

I will not sadden you with the tragic details of his loss – but I fear they may cause you to have doubts about the effectiveness of lavender water, tinged or untinged.

But while we’re exploring these remarkable protuberances which fringe our feet, it seems worth noting that they are the only parts of the body which can be stubbed – and that it is only the owner of the toe who can do the stubbing. (Now, be honest – you’ve never heard of a person stubbing somebody else’s toe, have you?)

But toes do have their legitimate role to play in our culture, particularly in the world of sports, where “toeing the line” is so important at the start of a race that the expression has come to have metaphorical significance, indicating acceptance of the rules – whatever the context – and generally (but not always willingly) conforming to group standards. Sometimes it’s expanded to “toeing the party line” – but be careful not to confuse this party line with the telephonic one – or you might trip over it.

Speaking of sports, our toes also have the distinction of being subject to a disorder apparently so common among people athletically inclined that it’s been named in their honor: Athlete’s Foot. They share this questionable type of accolade with aficionados of some other sports, who have given the world Tennis (and Golf) Elbow and Swimmer’s Ear.

Lest anyone feel left out of this discussion, I should also mention that, besides those who engage in various sports there are also the victims of certain other occupations and activities, who have expanded the nomenclature of suffering with their own maladies – such as Housemaid’s Knee, Traveler’s Diarrhea, and Writer’s Cramp. (The latter, of course, since writing with a pen is no longer fashionable, has now given pride of place to various computer-related disorders, which however, have failed to give us any name more romantic than “Carpal Tunnel Syndrome.”)

But not all such occupational associations need be negative. Have you ever heard of “Lawyer’s Jaw”? – probably not, since I just made it up. But I based the idea on a verse from the poem “You Are Old, Father William,” in Lewis Carroll’s “Alice In Wonderland.” In this dialogue, a young man asks his aged father how he was able to eat some almost unchewable food.

“In my youth,” said his father, “I took to the law,

And argued each case with my wife;

And the muscular strength, which it gave to my jaw,

Has lasted the rest of my life.”

But, getting back to our pedal extremities – considering how little they are seen on the stage of daily life, it’s remarkable what an active part they play, so to speak in the wings. It would be hard to invent new expressions as meaningful as “getting a toe-hold” (a term which appears to have derived from wrestling), “keeping on your (own) toes,” or “treading on (someone else’s) toes.” And when it comes to doing something very carefully and quietly, where would we be without the idea of “walking on tip-toe”?

Then there are those unfortunate people who for some reason are unable to use their hands, and have to rely on their toes to serve as fingers. You may have heard of Christy Brown, whose autobiography My Left Foot, (which became a film) tells how, despite the extreme handicap of cerebral palsy, he was able to become a celebrated artist.

In view of such inspiring stories, I’m sorry to tell you that, in terms of evolution, we appear to be losing our toes, starting with the little one, which, in a few million years, may be gone altogether – and you thought we had nothing in common with the poor Pobble!


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