The History of Giving the Middle Finger (and Other Obscene Gestures)
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The History of Giving the Middle Finger (and Other Obscene Gestures)

Commonly referred to as “giving the finger," “giving the bird,” "flipping the bird,” or "flipping someone off,” the gesture is usually equated with meaning “f**k you,” "f**k off,” "screw you,” or "up yours,” and is demonstrated by showing the back of a closed fist that has only the middle finger extended.

In the Western World, extending the middle finger to someone is considered an offensive and even obscene gesture used to insult the individual(s) to whom it is directed.  (In the UK and Ireland, the reversed “V” sign using the middle and index finger, given with the back of the hand towards the recipient, serves a similar purpose.)

Commonly referred to as “giving the finger," “giving the bird,” "flipping the bird,” or "flipping someone off,” the gesture is usually equated with meaning “f**k you,” "f**k off,” "screw you,” or "up yours,” and is demonstrated by showing the back of a closed fist that has only the middle finger extended.

Known to have been practiced since at least ancient Greek times where it was known as κατ?πυγον, it is thought to have probably originated in ancient Greek Comedy theater as a symbolic gesture to insult another person, but was also a covert and indirect way of insinuating that an individual--either male or female--submitted to anal intercourse (indicating their submissiveness).

Identified as the digitus impudicus (impudent finger) in ancient Roman writings, the widespread usage of “giving the finger” in other cultures is largely due to the geographical influence of the Roman Empire.  By the 1st century CE, extending the middle finger was used among Mediterranean cultures to divert the ever-present “evil eye.”

One historic account relating the significance of the middle finger involves the French army just before the Battle of Agincourt in 1415 when anticipating victory over the English, proposed to cut off the middle finger of all captured English soldiers. Without the middle finger, drawing the string of the English “yew” longbow would be impossible (known as "plucking the yew”), rendering them incapable of fighting future battles. Much to the bewilderment of the French, however, the English won a major upset and began mocking the French by waving their middle fingers at the defeated French, essentially saying, “See, we can still pluck the yew!”   The term "giving the bird" may refer to the pheasant feathers commonly used on the arrows used with the longbow.

Through the ages, a number of other gestures have been demonstrated by various cultures to indicate the same sentiment. For example, in William Shakespeare’s time (1564 to 1616), "biting the thumb" was the equivalent of the “giving the finger,” as seen in Romeo and Juliet, in which Capulet's servant Sampson starts a fight by doing so at Abraham, Montague's servant.

Today in countries where Spanish, Portuguese, or French are spoken (especially on the Iberian peninsula and parts of Latin America), a gesture called the Bras d'honneur ("arm of honor") is common, a behavior involving raising a fist and slapping the biceps on the same arm (known as giving a “stiff arm” in the US) but meaning something closer to “up yours.” This gesture can also be seen in Italy, Poland, Russia, Belarus, and the Ukraine.

In Guatemala a gesture equivalent to "the finger" is made by throwing the hand forward with the fingers spread wide, thumb up, pinky finger down, palm to the left; similar in physical orientation to a hand shake but the arm-wrist-finger configuration is straight, rigid, and fully extended in the direction of the recipient.

In Russian-influenced areas, as well as Turkey, Indonesia, China, and Mongolia, the "fig sign" (dulya or shish) serves as the equivalent of “giving the finger.”  Typically demonstrated with the hand and fingers curled and the thumb placed between the middle and index fingers, this gesture though not specifically equitable to “giving the finger,” is considered equally rude, meaning a refusal to agree (not unlike “to hell with you” in the US).  It is usually given in response to being asked for a personal loan or help with performing some physical task.

Among some African and Caribbean cultures, an obscene and disrespectful gesture meaning "you have five fathers" (essentially calling someone a bastard), is accomplished by extending all five fingers with the palm facing forward.

In some Arab countries (particularly Egypt), a gesture is made whereby the middle finger is lowered towards the palm and pointed towards someone, while all other fingers are kept straight. Virtually the opposite configuration of the tradition “middle finger” gesture, it serves the same purpose.

In modern-day Greece, a gesture involving spreading the five fingers wide with the palm pushed towards someone in a gesture known as the Moutza. Another variation of the “middle finger” gesture is used where all the fingers but the middle one are spread wide while moving the hand back and forth on the axis the middle finger creates. (In some variations of this gesture, the thumb sometimes touches the middle finger.)

Although it is not certain where the gesture may have originated, “mooning” is the act of displaying one's bare buttocks by lowering one's trousers and underpants, bending over, and aiming the buttocks at the recipient. A metaphor for the buttocks since at least the 17th century, the practice of “mooning” is used mostly in the English-speaking world to express protest, scorn, disrespect, and in some cases can be equated with "shit on you."

In Chilean Spanish, the act of “mooning” is known as cara pálida, meaning, “paleface.”



"What's A-O.K. in the U.S.A. Is Lewd and Worthless Beyond." The New York Times.

Gestures: The Do's and Taboos of Body Language Around the World, by Roger E. Axtell

Introducing Anthropology, M. A. Park

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Comments (7)

Interesting account of this human habit

Thank you sir!

hahaha totally entertaining, with much more history than I was aware.

Glad to hear that, Brenda.

This is very fun!

It certainly pays to be careful what you do with your hands when abroad. I had never heard of the wide hand thing in Greece.

Well researched as usual. Enjoyed myself and got more than a dose of info. I have been trying to use the private message section of factoidz to send a text but the captcha is behaving funny. Have been reading your write ups; and though most of the works dates far before me; been much younger, they nevertheless are always interesting, well researched and detailed. have a good day friend.