Last week we arrived at the word digital by tracing the history of movie projection. No longer is actual film run through a movie projector. Nowadays, pretty much all theaters use digital projection. How did we get from digits as fingers to digital as something ineffable and mysterious, at least to me?
The Latin root, as you probably know, is digitus, which was, indeed a Roman finger. The Romans, like us, held up one index finger (index coming from a verb meaning “to point”) to represent the number one. The Roman numeral “I” represents that one finger. To indicate (also from “to point”) the number five, the Romans, like us, held up one hand. See the “V” created by your thumb and forefinger? That’s the Roman numeral “V.”
You can see how the word for finger came to represent numbers as well. All human beings, I daresay, use their fingers for counting. Because the hocus-pocus of computers relies on a sequence of digits, the process took on the name digital. We are now reaching the point where my understanding and ability to explain has all but vanished.
I can explain, however, how digitus gave us at least one other interesting English word, that is, digitalis, the heart medication. The medication originally derives from the plant we call foxglove in English, and the name gives you a hint; the flowers are shaped like the fingers of a glove. Why a fox’s glove? Who knows? But the image makes for a charming name. The also charming German name fingerhut translates “finger hat.”
I always enjoyed telling my Latin students that understanding our English words’ etymologies is like visiting a museum. If occasionally a Greek statue can move you by its age, you might also feel awestruck by digital. Something so ancient and so simple as a finger has morphed into 21st century words for the esoteric science we rely on every day.