All Hands

By Ashleigh Brilliant   |   February 14, 2023

Most of us have two of them. We once had four, but Evolution specified that we would do better with just two and relegated the others to transportation, making a big distinction between hands and feet.

These upper extremities are fringed with independently movable digits called fingers, but one, called a “thumb” on each hand is of special importance, because it is “opposable” to the other four, making possible the “grasp,” which matters so much both physically and metaphorically. (I hope you grasp my meaning.)

But the word “digit” has had a life of its own. Because of the number we have, it came to be applied to the first ten Arabic numerals – zero through nine. The early computers attempted to use all 10. But then it turned out that all the programmers really needed were two symbols representing “yes” and “no,” or “on” and “off,” which naturally employed zero and one. So, when we call a device “digital,” it is simply one whose electronics work on that principle of ones and zeros.

When it comes to the whole hand, there is apparently no medical term for hand doctors. The closest is “orthopedic surgeon, specializing in the hand.” The only one I ever went to, or needed, was a man whom I remember fondly as the best doctor I ever had, because he was always successful with whatever problem I brought him. The only time his surgical skills came into play and he actually had to operate, was when I had what’s called a “trigger finger.” This term has nothing to do with firearms (as suggested by the metaphorical “itchy trigger finger”) but designates a condition in which you have trouble bending a particular joint. In my case, a thumb would not open or close smoothly, but only with a sort of “jerk” or “snap.” All it took to “cure” this condition was a swift operation to sever a certain tendon.

But those digits on your hand all have names. Until recently, however, there was one whose name I myself didn’t know. The other four have names pretty well agreed upon: Thumb, Index Finger, Ring Finger, and Little Finger. But what do you call the one between the Index and Ring Fingers?

The answer “Middle Finger” is mathematically correct. There are two digits on each side – so that puts it in the middle. But couldn’t there be some more meaningful designation? I know that a certain gesture has given this particular digit a vulgar reputation. But there ought to be something more “romantic,” like “THE LOVE FINGER.”

One aspect of having hands is what’s commonly known as “Handedness.” There are three main conditions. You can be right-handed (which about 90% of all people are) or left-handed, or both-handed (“ambidextrous”). I’m not sure just what evolutionary purpose this divergence has served, but “lefties,” though they form a sizable minority, are generally at a disadvantage in our society, because manufacturers tend to favor the right-handed, in terms of tools or appliances. 

There seems to be very little correlation with intelligence, but, in matters of health, left-handedness is definitely a liability.

Are there any advantages to being left-handed? Yes, especially in a wide range of sports. Those often called “Southpaws,” tend to prevail in a wide range of such activities, including boxing, baseball, cricket, fencing, and bowling. In many of these cases, it helps when your opponent is right-handed and isn’t used to coming up against lefties. And, of course, you may just enjoy the feeling of being different from the majority.

But there are also many superstitions about left-handedness – and I’m afraid none of them give much comfort to lefties. The tendency is to associate anything on the left with evil and the Devil. 

Hence, the idea that, if you spill salt, you should throw some over your left shoulder, warding off Satan. And of course, the Latin word for left has itself, at least in English, come to have unpleasant connotations: sinister. In politics too, the left is associated with radical extremism. This goes back to the French Revolution of the 1790s, when, in the National Assembly, supporters of the king tended to gather on the speaker’s right, and opponents on his left.

Naturally, since they’re so numerous and widespread, there are today worldwide organizations devoted to improving the image and protecting the interests of left-handed people.

In that case, let me conclude here – before this contribution of mine gets out of hand.


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