“You missed the palm,” the younger informed me. I was gently scratching her arm from shoulder to fingertips, at her request.
She lay in bed next to me, her right arm stretched up to the ceiling, her fingers splayed. She gazed up at her hand.
“I know why it’s called a palm,” she observed. “It’s because when your arm is pointed up it looks like a palm tree.”
LA kid, I thought to myself. We live on a street lined with tall palm trees.
“Hmmm. I’m not sure that’s why it’s called a palm,” I said.
“But maybe,” she insisted. “Maybe,” I agreed.
I still don’t know why the palm of the hand is called the palm, but the OED did inform me that the body part inspired the tree, not the other way around: the tree name is derived from “classical Latin palma palm tree, leaf or branch from a palm tree, especially one placed in the hands of the victor in a contest, victory, a transferred use of palma palm of the hand.”
The order in which OED lists the two nouns runs against the grain of the etymology, I suppose because in English (as opposed to Latin) the earliest recorded usages of palm refer to the tree: so, palm, n. 1. is the tree, not the hand, and its earliest usage is in early Old English, meaning some time between 600 and 950, while palm, n. 2. is the hand, with earliest cited usage from 1300.
Both definitions are a pleasure to read, and quite different in tone. And in both, the wording of the definition takes on qualities of the object described.
Palm, n. 1. describes the tree in question as
“ … an unbranched upright woody stem surmounted by a terminal crown of very large, typically feather-like or fan-shaped leaves, the fruit usually being a fleshy drupe with an oily seed.”
Now that’s what I’d call an opulent definition. I’m tempted to call it an Orientalist definition, its abundance of adjectives and lavish figurative language (crown; feather-like; fan-shaped) painting the palm as a bejeweled voluptuous exotic. And that’s not even to mention the fleshy drupe.
By contrast, the second definition for palm, n. 2, i.e. the palm of the hand, the palm that is literally fleshy, is compressed, like the motion it describes:
“ … The inner surface of the hand between the wrist and the fingers, on which the fingers close.”
This definition of “palm” operates both on the metonymic principle of contiguity (the palm lies between wrist and fingers) and the synecdochic principle of set and subset (the palm is part “of the hand”). Let’s take the metonymic principle first. This part of the definition characterizes the palm by the body parts that are adjacent to it. This descriptive technique is kin to the lexicographer’s own method: defining a word by other words that are semantically proximate. The logic is paratactic, that is, additive—just like the song: wrist bone connected to the – palm bone. Palm bone connected to the – finger bone. The logic shifts, turning hypotactic, that is, subordinated and complex, in the final clause. The final subordinate clause describes the palm as the area “on which the fingers close,” that is to say, a form of negative space: it is the “surface” upon which the fingers impress themselves. The phrase “on which the fingers close” adds dimension and motion to an image that before was static: the palm is not only between wrist and fingers but may be concealed beneath the fingers. The palm becomes visible as a moving part of a greater whole.
I’ve always aspired to write like an elegantly folded hand, compact and discreet. But, as I think the penultimate paragraph of this post illustrates, my natural style, just like the younger’s, is all fingers and thumbs, splayed out and reaching for the heavens.