He had his fingers pointed??
December 3, 2014 9:30 PM   Subscribe

My cousin found a document about our relative, Raymond, who in 1918 deserted the Navy. In his physical description it says "he is a musician and he has had his fingers pointed to aid in his profession". What the heck does that mean?

At least I think it is a physical description. The exact wording is:

He is a musician and has had fingers of his left hand pointed so as to help him professionally.
posted by cda to Writing & Language (16 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Could it just mean that he had pointed fingernails? To help pick stringed instruments, for example.
posted by Mizu at 9:33 PM on December 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

Right-handed people pick with the right hand, and many left-handed people just follow suit: otherwise they'd have to hold the instrument upside-down (particularly inconvenient when not using a pick, makes for awkward fingering) or restring it in reverse order (can't use anybody else's instrument without a lot of bother).

Not that it doesn't happen, but it would be the more improbable option to have long fingernails on the left hand.
posted by Dr Dracator at 9:48 PM on December 3, 2014

Could there have been some form of crude surgery performed to make his fingertips pointy, so that he could finger the strings better?
posted by kinddieserzeit at 10:07 PM on December 3, 2014

If he is left handed, he may have long fingernails for fingerpicking with his left hand. I have seen guitar players with longer nails for this purpose. Some wear fake nails to pick with instead -- James Taylor has admitted he got fake nails put on at a beauty salon for guitar picking.

When I first read your question though, I thought maybe he was doing the universal "rock on" hand gesture in the photo. But that's probably not what that meant.
posted by AppleTurnover at 10:15 PM on December 3, 2014

Eh, Mr. Arnicae thinks this suggests a string player or possibly a drummer whose long work on their craft has actually changed the bone structure of his hands. String players (mostly violinists) and the occasional drummer, he says, actually have fingers that seem bent to one side due to the time and energy put into curling their hands around their instruments.

Nothing as extreme as catcher's hands from before catcher's mitts were invented but along the same lines.
posted by arnicae at 10:38 PM on December 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

I did a google books search for "pointed fingers" plus "music" for books in that era. I didn't browse that much (and there are probably other phrases you could try) but one book mentions a cast of Paganini's hand with "sharply pointed fingers."
posted by needs more cowbell at 11:09 PM on December 3, 2014

Some wear fake nails to pick with instead -- James Taylor has admitted he got fake nails put on at a beauty salon for guitar picking

Slightly off topic but there is not much to admit here -- classical guitarists use fake nails all the time: you can't cancel a month of concerts when you break a fingernail.
posted by Dr Dracator at 11:50 PM on December 3, 2014 [2 favorites]

I would assume it was a joke or exaggeration, just something he told people to make an impression or fool around. I don't think it means anything other than that the captioner is kidding.
posted by blnkfrnk at 1:44 AM on December 4, 2014

Check out this preview for an article on turn of the century finger-tapering devices in The Journal of Hand Surgery: Tapered Fingers.
posted by figgy_finicky at 4:50 AM on December 4, 2014 [4 favorites]

Just a guess, but is this possibly a way to hedge the idea that the military would think he was gay if he had longer fingernails than typically accepted for a man at the time?
posted by dlugoczaj at 7:22 AM on December 4, 2014

I play in an orchestra (part-time) - I've never heard of this. The left hand nails are always the short nails so that the fingers can stop the strings easier. Swapping over a violin, viola, etc. to play "left-handed" is EXTREMELY rare, and generally has been attempted when some extremely talented string player has been injured and is trying to find a way to keep playing.

figgy_finicky may have something there... or along the lines of what blnkfrnk suggests, the man may have claimed something like this and the person writing the record may have dutifully noted this without critically examining the claim.
posted by randomkeystrike at 10:30 AM on December 4, 2014

Response by poster: I do know that he played the violin professionally, that he was married 3 times and that this document is an alert to law enforcement to apprehend him.

Some accounts say that he played classical music at first but I do know that he wrote songs for the worker's rights movement (I assume those were in the folk genre). He was born in West Virginia. He was an herbalist.

I shouldn't write his name here for privacy reasons but if you want to know Memail me.
posted by cda at 11:05 AM on December 4, 2014

I was going to say that almost certainly refers to his fingernails, except that, as noted above, the left hand is the wrong hand for that.

The left hand is, of course, the worker's rights commie pinko side, though.

Not sure why they would use a dog-whistle rather than just citing communist sympathies if they were trying to indicate where he might be found, unless maybe they were being cautious about unsupported accusations and/or slander.
posted by desuetude at 12:23 PM on December 4, 2014

Following up on figgy_finicky's find, this mentions a "fat fingered violinist" who tapered his fingers and includes some images of the sorts of devices used...
posted by mdn at 1:06 PM on December 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

I think it is just what it says: he had his fingers "pointed" so he could press the strings more precisely on his violin. It certainly wouldn't be fingernails: they are practically the bane of the violinist (on the left hand at least).
posted by oneirodynia at 3:12 PM on December 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

Warning: This is kind of gross.

I knew a guy who got his finger caught in a car door once. He pulled his hand away (as one does when something hurts) and the meat of his fingertip was pulled off entirely, leaving a bare bone. When he had a skin graft to recover the tip of his finger, it was just over the bony tip, leaving that finger with a very distinct point compared to his others (and no fingernail). He could tap on a hard surface with that finger and it sounded very similar to someone tapping a nail because there was no padding on that tip. I've never heard of anyone doing such a thing on purpose, but perhaps a very dedicated musician might want to get rid of the tender fingertip in a similar way to improve their playing?
posted by Fuego at 11:51 AM on December 10, 2014

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