Nixon did it, and so did Kennedy. George W. Bush has been caught numerous times on tape grinning broadly and flashing what he called the “one-finger salute.” It has been described as “flipping someone off” or “giving someone the bird,” but when it comes right down to it, the gesture of raising the middle finger ultimately translates as “fuck you!” Every nation has its own array of verbal assaults, but they also have their arsenal of insulting gestures as well. In the United States, the ubiquitous finger is our call to arms. Unlike swearing aloud, which is based upon actual words with specific meanings, gestures are purely visual, and the finger has a kind of inherent meaning that words don’t have. In our case, the raised finger was initially most likely meant to resemble the erect penis, with the tucked-under fingers as testicles. As obvious as this may be, few people—if any—ever consider that notion when “flipping off” the trucker who just cut in front of you on the highway.
Historically, the obscene gesture dates back to a passage in The Clouds by Aristophanes. It was in ancient Rome, however, where it was called the digitus impudicus, or the “impudent finger,” that the finger rose to the fore. In an epigram of the first century poet Martial, he “points his finger, and the insulting one at that, towards Alcon, Dasius and Symmachus.” When Emperor Caligula offered his extended middle finger, rather than his hand, for his subjects to kiss, observers found the act scandalous and offensive. The gesture became so abhorrent that Augustus Caesar banished an actor from Rome for giving the finger to an audience member who hissed at the man during a performance. At the time, the finger went hand in hand with the “forearm jerk.” This is where a clenched fist is jerked forcibly upward while the other hand is slapped down in the bend of the elbow. Although the latter gesture is still common throughout Europe, the United States seems to have an exclusive hold on the former. In our modern era, according to anthropologist Desmond Morris, the gesture probably came to the United States via Italian immigrants. The first documented appearance of the finger in the United States was in 1886 when Old Hoss Radbourn, a pitcher for the Boston Beaneaters, was photographed giving it to a member of the rival New York Giants.
The popularity of the gesture may in part be due to its efficiency. Whether it is a result of road rage or just a playful clandestine scratching of the head by a co-worker at a staff meeting, not a word needs to be spoken. To turn an old phrase, “Let your fingers do the talking.” What makes the finger handy is that it can be used to cover great distances and penetrate realms that the good-old F-word cannot. As Professor Timothy Jay explains, “Speaker anonymity allows one to disrespect people without recourse or retaliation.” Yes, when words fail, there is always the finger. It can speak volumes in silence.
If the finger is used to convey a wide range of emotions, even the manner in which one delivers it is equally diverse. The amusing little volume Field Guide to the North American Bird sets forth step-by-step illustrations for more than fifty variations, including the “Peel the Banana,” the “Corkscrew,” and the “Fly Fisherman.” However you do it—out of hostility or just in jest—giving the finger is the perfect surrogate for the verbal “fuck you” when the latter is unavailable.
Without question, the finger is our most common insulting gesture. The “bird” flies everywhere. Consequently, the courts are continually faced with arrest cases where the police arrest obstreperous individuals for using lewd gestures. Nevertheless, the decisions almost always conclude that giving the finger does not support a disorderly conduct conviction, even when it is directed toward a police officer. Lawyer Ira Robbins notes that this approach “allows individuals to criticize the police in a nonviolent way without risking arrest and prosecution.” Similarly, just one use of the F-word on commercial television could garner a $325,000 fine by FCC media watchdogs, the finger has been popping up without any incident on TV.
Naturally, cable TV, which is not under the same jurisdiction as commercial TV, is far more accepting. In episodes of South Park alone, young Craig has been known to “flip off” his share of people. In real life, however, this gesture still does not sit well with many. A case in point is when Miley Cyrus gave the finger to one DJ Chuckie at the Create nightclub in Los Angeles. This got her summarily kicked out of the prized VIP section of the club. Giving the finger is a common rebuke known to almost all Americans—indiscriminate of age, gender and ethnic background. The band Cobra Starship played on this diversity in their 2011 song Middle Finger: from the hapless art student to the little old lady crossing the street, nearly everyone in the music video was shown angrily hoisting the venerable digit at somebody.
In a final word, the finger also can say that you do not care to say anything. Celebrities such as Britney Spears, Cameron Diaz, Jodie Foster, and Queen Latifah among many others have resorted to it frequently for just such a purpose. With their middle digit raised high, they have all been caught on camera in a “no-comment” comment to the ladies and gentlemen photographers of the press. It is also the recourse of the sore loser. Anthony Weiner lived up to his name when he awarded the single-digit to an NBC reporter after losing in a New York City mayoral primary. One would almost think that the gesture was especially invented to flip-off prying paparazzi, but a short tour of images on Google will show that giving the finger is something the average individual, from toddler to octogenarian, can do just as capably as celebrities.
Whether it’s done blatantly or discreetly—flipping the bird is a tried and true silent form of speech that can well fill the gap for a hearty “fuck you.” In concert with its verbal cousin, however, it is a cathartic match that can’t be topped. Perhaps the most sacrilegious, yet wickedly funny, example of this is in a scene from The Book of Mormon, where nearly a dozen Ugandans, beset by war, poverty, famine, the rape of babies, and AIDS, find their emotional release by vigorously raising their middle fingers to the sky while singing “Hasa Diga Eebowai,” which is later translated as “Fuck you, God.”
As a historical aside, when Stephen Sondheim was writing the lyrics for the 1957 musical West Side Story, he was hoping to be the first person to use a serious four-letter obscenity in a Broadway show: “Gee, Officer Krupke—Fuck you!” This did not come to pass, and in the end, the line was changed to “Krup you!” (Sondheim has since maintained that it may be the best lyric line in the show.) Is there any doubt what the lyric would be if it were written today? Mr. Sondheim, though a recognized giant of musical theater, has never had a play of his run more than a thousand performances on Broadway. More than having passed that Broadway milestone, The Book of Mormon has had tickets for choice performances running up to $500 a seat. Clearly, the raucous little play had its finger on the pulse of the theater-going public, and that pulse hardly skips a beat, today, when one of the characters exclaims, “Jesus called me a dick!”
But one need not be so obvious to get the point across. In the first episode of season three of PBS’s Sherlock!, Watson is at work in his doctor’s office and Holmes going about his own business at 221B Baker Street. Watson is angry with his old friend for faking his death, and we see the good doctor first raise his middle finger as he slips on a rubber glove. Shoot to Holmes’ study where Mrs. Hudson asks what Watson said to Holmes upon learning of his return. Holmes begins to sound out “fff…,” and we immediately shift back to Watson as he tells a patient to “Cough!” (Sound those out together if you don’t catch the humor immediately.) “Oh dear,” says Mrs. Hudson.
In closing, for all of the trivia fans out there, astronomer Galileo Galilei’s middle finger has been meticulously preserved and can be viewed today at the Museo Galileo in Florence, for eight euros. The digit was plucked from his dead body by a souvenir-hunter named Anton Francesco Gori in 1737 when Gori detached the finger while moving the body from a storage closet to a nearby chapel. For a great man who was tried by the Inquisition, found “vehemently suspect of heresy,” forced to recant, and who spent the rest of his life under house arrest, isn’t it fitting that Galileo is still flipping the bird to the Catholic Church for condemning him for his theory of heliocentrism?
And, if you are not able to confront your adversary face to face, there is always the computer keyboard. Let your fingers do the talking:
By Rob Chirico
Sources: Chirico, Rob. (2014) Damn! A Cultural History of Swearing in Modern America, Durham, North Carolina: Pitchstone Press
Nasaw, Daniel (February 6, 2012). “When did the middle finger become offensive?” BBC News Magazine (BBC).
Robbins, Ira P. “Digitus Impudicus: The Middle Finger and the Law.” University of California, Davis Law Review Vol. 41:1403
Jay, Timothy. (1996) What to Do When Your Students Talk Dirty, San Jose, California: Resource Publications
Blank, Adam and Laura. (2004) Field Guide to the North American Bird. Berkeley: Ten Speed Press