On the other foot, I have FiveFingers

Yes, the title of this post is a somewhat cryptic allusion to the second half of the familiar idiom used to contrast two ideas or statements: “on the one hand…on the other hand.

But, no, there are no typos or mistakes in the title itself. Before I explain, here is a syntactical aside.

aside The original idiom not only sets up a contrast between the two phrases, but it also joins them together. By itself, each half is a prepositional phrase of identical structure — preposition / article / adjective / noun — but when used together they function exactly like correlative conjunctions, “pairs of conjunctions that work together to coordinate two items.” Grammatically, this pairing is indistinguishable from either…or, both…and, not only…but also, etc. In fact, as the last one shows, a correlative conjunction can have multi-word elements.

But four words each? Perhaps a few people knew this to judge from Google’s 2000+ hits on the combo of phrases — “on the one hand” “on the other hand” “correlative conjunction.” Presumably at least some of the authors of these pages specifically mention that the two idiomatic elements are an example of the third phrase, though I didn’t read any of them closely, given that this is yawn-alert territory. Among the results that I skimmed, a majority seem to be focused on Greek language study, exegesis of Christian and Jewish texts, and contemporary French philosophy. In other words, this has been not only an aside, but an arcane one at that! /aside

As for the matter at hand, there is another, less-familiar version of the two-part idiom that begins traditionally: “On the one hand, [insert opening item]”; it finishes, however, as an unexpected joke: “On the other hand, I have five fingers.” Unlike the 90-million-plus hits on Google for the traditional version, the joke pair gets an astonishingly low seven hits — not 7 million, just 7. Curiously, the eight-word punch line by itself gets about 8,400 hits. Apparently, “On the other hand, I have five fingers” has far more value as a free-standing statement, where the set-up is implicit, than as the finish of a contrived, explicit exchange.

If you had asked me about the origin of the joke pair, I would hesitantly have turned the question back to you: “Groucho Marx?” It does have that quirky juxtaposition of the familiar and the looney that characterizes many of his most memorable aphorisms. I’m thinking in particular of “Outside of a dog, a book is man’s best friend; inside of a dog, it’s too dark to read.” But among the 8,400 hits on the punch line alone, only one of them survives when you add “Groucho” to the search string on Google, and that one is an accidental combination of unrelated topics. The punch line does not show up at all in the newsgroup alt.quotations of the Google Usenet archive. So I’m willing to be persuaded that Groucho said it first, but right now it’s a completely open issue.

What is not open to doubt is the variant of the joke that appears here: “On the other foot, I have FiveFingers.” This post is its debut appearance on the Web. Which says nothing about its meaning, of course. For that you need to follow the thread from Vitale Bramani, inventor of the first rubber-soled boots and founder of Vibram, to the company’s latest creation, the minimalist FiveFingers sport and outdoor shoes. The most distinctive feature of the shoe is that each toe of the foot fits into its own, well, toe of the shoe, in the same sense that a glove for the hand has a separate leather or fabric finger to contain the respective finger of that hand. We know what the fingers of a glove are, as distinct from those of a hand. If “toe shoes” or the like becomes a widely-used generic term, then we will easily distinguish the dual meaning of “toe” vis-a-vis feet and shoes, just as we do now for “finger” vis-a-vis hands and gloves. Presumably the use of “FiveFingers” as a product name is meant to emphasize this parallel, even at the risk of some initial confusion.

If you’re still not sure what this is really all about, please look at this photograph of my crossed legs and feet. On my left foot (center) you can see my left FiveFingers TrekSport, complete with its separate toes containing my toes. Also, needless to say… on the other foot, I have FiveFingers.

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