Why do some people have that one extra-long fingernail on the pinkie finger?

April 28, 2006

Dear Cecil:

For decades I've wondered, and assuming the answer would be highly personal, have failed to ask: what's the deal with the extra-long pinkie fingernail on people from the Orient (Middle East, India, Southeast Asia)?

You're thinking I'm going to say I did all my research for this on the Internet. Well, not all. I have a buddy with a long pinkie nail and a high embarrassment threshold, so I called up and asked. However, let's face it: for topics resistant to conventional lines of inquiry, the Internet is hard to beat. Some theories, many lifted from the Straight Dope Message Board, this column's own little window into the demimonde:

  • Organic coke spoon. As if we needed to ask.
  • Booger scoop and earwax excavator. Gross, yes, but sure keeps that coke from falling off.
  • In the old days in China, long fingernails were a sign you were rich and didn't do manual labor. Now they grow out the pinkie as a sign of culture, breeding and wealth. No doubt there's some truth to this. A bit of browsing turns up photos of ornate fingernail protectors worn by ladies of the imperial Chinese court. Bizarre though such talons may seem to some, one could argue that as an indicator of culture, breeding, and wealth they beat having to buy a Jaguar and read Proust.
  • My Chinese students (all about 18 to 22) told me the nails are long so the little finger reaches past the last knuckle joint on the ring finger. If it does, you are rich and intelligent! Maybe, but if I'm Anna Nicole Smith trying to size up a prospective soul mate, I'm going to need to see more than a pinkie nail.
  • My 76-year-old uncle keeps one pinkie nail long and sharpened to open envelopes.
  • A sharpened, hardened nail is a dangerous weapon and can be a sign of prison time. Or of a man who opens a lot of envelopes.
  • I thought it was a sign one was a pimp.
  • My friend has one and always hints it is for sexual purposes. I really hope they don't involve earwax.
  • Great for opening shrink-wrap. Ha! I bet that's what Mr. Sexual Purposes does with it.
  • General scratching and ear cleaning. The longer nail also works well when trying to pick up something lying flat on a table, like a coin. Definitely seeing a common thread here. My assistant Bibliophage points to the French word auriculaire, meaning pinkie finger, of which Larousse remarks, "ainsi nommé parce que sa petitesse lui permet de s'introduire dans l'oreille" ("so named because its small size allows it to be introduced into the ear").
  • My pinkie finger on both my hands is a bit longer than the other nails. I use them for playing the tarifs, or sympathetic strings of the sitar, in different fashions. I use the right one for playing a quick scale down the sympathetic strings between different movements of the Hindustani classical music I usually play. The left one I use for striking the tarifs as accents during the slow, first movement, or alap. I keep my right index nail a little long so that I can pluck each string individually (they are hard to reach) for tuning. And as a bonus, people think you're a pimp.
  • The cashier at Subway had one nail grown long. I asked him why and he said he had a running competition with one of his friends as to who had the longest fingernail. This, on so many levels, is why I never eat at Subway.
  • A Google search produced some interesting ones: that Picasso kept a long little fingernail for mixing paints, and that Turkish men commonly keep such a nail for opening cigarette wrappers.
  • I am the only man I know that has 32 different colors of nail varnish, as I have one two-inch-long pinkie nail that I paint up like the Colombian flag. Whatever you say, partner. However, I have to point out that the Colombian flag only has three colors.
  • Don't cut my nails, pinkies only ones that don't break off. My friend's answer. Give him credit for honesty.
  • On a Beijing subway I saw a guy with a long pinkie nail clean his nose and his ears with it. Right after he wiped his nail on the hand rail, someone grabbed it. Wonderful place, Beijing subways. OK, I think we got it. Theory, at least in some parts of Asia: sign of culture, breeding, and wealth. Practice, regardless of locale: booger scoop.
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