The words trousers and fingers have little in common, other than that they both end with the suffix –er. For our question to be answered--in fact, for it to even make sense--trousers and fingers must each derive from verbs. The question is, do they?
Er, about that -er…
Not all –er words are made of the same stuff.
The derivational suffix –er changes the form of a word. For example, writer changes the verb write to an agent noun meaning a practitioner of the act of writing.
The inflectional suffix –er, on the other hand, does not change the type of word. When used with an adjective, for example, it doesn’t alter the meaning of the word substantially. It merely indicates a greater degree of the same word, as in green and greener.
A third type of –er word isn’t changed at all by the –er morpheme. The –er is merely a part of the word, as in her or other. A mother, for example, isn’t a mothier moth. Nor is she a person who moths.
The word trousers is derived from the Scottish Gaelic word triubhas, or trews, which in turn comes from the Old French trebus. Scots, who love their kilts, wear trews when kilts are impractical, such as when riding horses.
Triubhas is perhaps best known from the Scottish dance, the Seann Triubhas, which means “old trousers.”
According to Scottish dance lore (which is disputed, as lore often is), the Seann Triubhas may have originated during or because of the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745, when the English king tried to force the integration of Scotland by outlawing certain traditional clothing, including both kilts and tartan trews.
But what does this tell us about whether trousers trouse?
However, if we look deeper into the word, we discover a cognate in modern English, truss. In its verb form, truss can be defined as “to bind, tie, or fasten,” which is exactly what early versions of trews, worn not only by Gaels but also Romans and others, did.
So, it turns out, trousers do trouse. Or at least they truss. Linguistically, there’s not much difference.
But what about fingers? When was the last time you finged something? You probably don’t remember. German speakers, however, do.
Those of us who speak German recognize the root fing as the Präteritum, or simple or imperfect past tense, of the verb fangen (fangen/fing/gefangen), to catch. This cannot possibly be a coincidence, since the German word indicates something that fingers do.
In Anglo-Saxon England, fón meant “to catch, grasp, grip,” and other related actions. The past tense féng was also used as a noun for something that had been captured, such as booty.
There’s another word in the modern English vocabulary that comes from the same root: the canine incisors, or fangs, the long teeth used for grasping.
So, like several other body part words, finger goes back to the earliest days of English, and does, indeed, use the derivational suffix –er to indicate something that grasps or catches, or, yes, fings.
Interestingly, finger can also be a verb, meaning something you do with your finger, such as to touch or point out. It appears that our ancient fing verb was lost, but then the noun derived from it was transformed back into a verb.
And the answer is…
The answer to our question, “If trousers trouse, do fingers fing?” then, is yes.
But why does it matter? Nearly all English speakers have happily lived their entire lives without ever being aware that they’ve been trousing and finging daily. Other than an interesting bit of trivia, understanding the roots of these words is not a big deal, right?
At least for those of us who love words.
By understanding the roots and original meanings of words, we can use our language with more precision. Word nerds understand that, when looking for a synonym, one can’t merely turn to a page in a thesaurus and pick a word at random. Even words with identical denotations often carry very different connotations.
If you’re writing a story, for example, whether your character wears “pants” or “trousers” can reveal several things about him, from where he was raised to his feelings about the article of clothing. Likewise with finger. Whether you use finger or a synonym can depend on why you are using the word. Hook, claw, digit, feeler, or the names of each individual finger carry different connotations. Careful writers want their readers to fing the correct meaning.
About the Author
Scott Rhoades is a writer from Newark, California. He currently resides in Utah where he works for Adobe Systems. A true word nerd, Scott’s life revolves around writing and reading. He can spend hours reading a dictionary or studying word roots. His favorite saying is, “Words are my LEGO.”