Up yours: The gesture that divides America and the UK

Sometimes a gesture can convey a message more satisfactorily than words. Why tell someone to fuck off when you can just give them the finger? We like to think that gestures can transcend language, or that they are a more universal form of communication, but we only have to look at the difference in the offensive gesture repertoire of North American and UK English speakers to know this is not true. In fact, Americans are deprived of a particularly satisfying offensive gesture, and it causes much mirth for Brits, Australians and New Zealanders.

The ‘up yours’ gesture is made with the index and middle finger raised and parted, and the palm facing towards yourself. It has similar connotations to the ‘middle finger’ gesture, but with an added element of defiance. The hand may be moved up and down for added effect. The gesture is demonstrated by this besuited chappie:

morris et al

(Image from Morris et al. 1979)

In a survey of gestures in Europe in the 1970s, Desmond Morris and his team found that this gesture was almost exclusively found in the British Isles. It is also used in Australia and New Zealand. Folktales of its origins abound, the most popular being that when the English bested the French in The Hundred Years War with their fancy high-tech longbows, the V hand shape of the archers lining up their arrows became a battle gesture. There is no evidence to support this story, and quite a lot of evidence to contradict it, although that doesn’t stop the story being told.

If you’re unfamiliar with this gesture it may remind you of the Peace Sign. They form a gestural minimal pair, in that they only differ with regard to one feature. The hand-shape and vertical orientation are the same, but the orientation of the palm is different. In the same way that the innocuous word fug differs from the nocuous fuck by only one pronunciation feature; just a small change turns a gesture from benign to offensive.

The Peace Sign has its own history. In World War Two The Allied Forces instituted the gesture to represent a ‘V for Victory’. There are images of people across Allied territory making the gesture with the palm either inwards or outward, although outward became the more common orientation. In an interesting twist of semantic fate, the gesture was co-opted by the peace movement and given a meaning make-over. This gesture has much broader recognition than the ‘up yours’ gesture, especially in North America.

Britain’s Wartime Prime Minister was Winston Churchill, who was an articulate and formidable leader. He embraced the Victory gesture, and is seen with his fingers aloft in many images of the time. In quite a few of those images though his palm is facing inwards instead of outwards:

Churchill_V_sign_HU_55521g6857_u3848_Sir_Winston_Churchill

Image on the left from WikiMedia, on the right from V for Victory.

Some argue that his aristocratic background meant that he was unaware of the primary meaning of the palm-inward version in Britain and was innocently performing it like many other Europeans.

The more likely explanation is that Churchill was all too aware of the meaning of this gesture. John Colville, Churchill’s private secretary, noted in his diaries that “The PM *will* give the V-sign with two fingers in spite of representations repeatedly made to him that this gesture has quite another significance”.

If this is true, Churchill cheekily exploited the gesture to signal to the Allies that the British were against the Germans, while also garnering support at home. The gesture could simultaneously mean  ‘Victory over the Germans’ and ‘Stick it up the Germans’. The ambiguity allowed Churchill to insult the enemy without the enemy even being aware of it.

While Churchill knowingly exploited the minimal difference between the ‘up yours’ and ‘V for Victory’ gesture, in subsequent decades many North Americans have perhaps not been as aware of their cross-cultural gaffe.

I leave you with two images. The first is of Justin Bieber, who is frequently photographed performing this gesture with apparently no understanding of its meaning for his BritBeliebers. The second is of George Bush Senior. When George Bush Sr. Bush Sr. visited Australia in 1992 he attempted to be friendly to a bunch of protesters in Canberra by giving the Peace Sign out of his limo. Unfortunately he presented with the palm facing inwards and probably did a lot more damage than if he just left his hand inside the vehicle.

Justin-Bieber-threw-up-peace-sign-during-his-appearance-Late

The Biebs via PopSugar

george-bush-snr-pic-rex-features-858484931

George Bush Sr. via The Mirror

35 thoughts on “Up yours: The gesture that divides America and the UK

  1. bob October 8, 2015 / 10:23 am

    Hmmmm, to me, the v-sign means “fuck you”. The single finger means “up yours” which, particularly when accompanied by the phrase “spin on it”, makes much more sense.

    Liked by 1 person

      • John Gray October 16, 2015 / 2:50 pm

        Not directly on target here, but the “peace sign” is made with the palm out towards the viewer. The UK obscene gesture more closely resembles the “love” sign of the late 1960’s. Or according to a conversation my mother (now in her eighties) had on the telephone with one of her friends the peace and love gestures were secret hippy code for “Do you have drugs?” and “Yes, I do” respectively.

        Like

  2. Stan Carey October 8, 2015 / 12:29 pm

    I’ve sometimes seen the one- and two-fingered gestures combined, for added offensive effect, with what Morris et al. call the forearm jerk (image from same source):

    Liked by 1 person

  3. rossmurray1 October 8, 2015 / 1:30 pm

    I work at a school with international students. If I have to take a photo of Asian students, especially girls, they will invariably flash the V. Now you’ve got me thinking…

    Like

    • Lauren Gawne October 8, 2015 / 4:15 pm

      As far as I know, the Japanese “Photo Peace Sign” is almost always performed with the palm out, and therefore benign. If anyone has some photos to the contrary it would be most amusing.

      Like

      • rossmurray1 October 8, 2015 / 5:12 pm

        Why, I saw one palm in just this very morning!

        Like

  4. Mededitor October 8, 2015 / 1:51 pm

    Also, this gesture is ubiquitous among the Japanese in group photos. They use it in the sense of “V for victory,” but turn the hand around in the US “peace” symbol fashion.

    Like

  5. scaserta11 October 8, 2015 / 2:22 pm

    I’ve lived in both places, I love just randomly throwing the V up and American’s not understanding. I am horrible.

    Like

  6. Heather Asbeck October 8, 2015 / 7:27 pm

    British fingers.

    >

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  7. Mark Kevin Smith October 9, 2015 / 12:16 am

    Now, i know a new gesture to use, when i want to get a certain message across that no one wil understand, i like that. My wife and i have a phrase to tell people “fuck you” without them knowing, it’s “how nice” with a bit of a southern accent. We like it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • applexy September 27, 2017 / 1:35 pm

      I’m finding this very strange … : WHAT is the point in telling people “fuck you” without them knowing??? You even have a code with your wife for it, meaning this happens more than just once in a while … – I should say you have a problem! If your acquaintances deserve a fuckyou, you might as well let them know. Or change your circles. ts ts

      Like

      • Mark Kevin Smith October 3, 2017 / 9:59 pm

        When we are out in public, I generally won’t say fuck you to anyone out loud out of respect for everyone else listening that doesn’t need to here it but still needs to be conveyed anyway. Also I was just having fun with this post. Its not a serious post.

        Like

    • Bill Cenne November 8, 2017 / 9:22 pm

      how nahhhhsss, kevin !

      Like

  8. Galaxy Jane October 9, 2015 / 12:17 am

    When my oldest was about 8, I was trying to break him of the habit of pointing at everything with his middle finger. So I explained that people would think he was being rude and to either use his pointer or two fingers instead of the lone middle. He turned to me and gave the perfect “up yours” V, fist jerk and all, “Like this, mommy?”

    Once I was able to pick myself up off the floor and breathe again from laughing, I explained that that probably wasn’t an improvement.

    Like

  9. Harry Campbell October 9, 2015 / 12:29 am

    There is also a photo of Margaret Thatcher repeating Churchill’s gaffe. I’d be pretty sure it wasn’t deliberate in her case.

    Like

  10. John Cowan October 9, 2015 / 1:33 am

    I can only say that the pleasure of using the middle finger of the left hand, almost but not quite straight, palm-in and surrounded by the tightly curled thumb, index, ring, and pinky fingers (with the pad of the proximal phalanx of each covering the distal phalanx of the same finger), has a satisfaction of its own which quite exceeds any mere single or double extended finger.

    Like

  11. D.T. Nova October 9, 2015 / 2:08 am

    I thought the longbow origin story was just that joke about the fingers being used to “pluck yew”.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Iain Templeton October 9, 2015 / 6:21 am

    I recall the two finger version being more common while in primary school (Launceston, Tasmania, mid-1980’s). It may have been less offensive too.

    But I don’t remember it being as frequent after moving to high school. I wonder if other people (Australian or otherwise) have noticed that. Maybe I’ll ask my son what’s common at his school.

    Like

  13. Duncan October 9, 2015 / 12:15 pm

    I’ve never associated the sign with any specific verbal meaning, more as a general sign of defiance and, especially, contempt. I also see in it a suggestion of brevity: “I think little of you and am going to waste no breath in telling you.” The oft-suggested link with Agincourt, and English archers taunting the French, may be apochryphal, but it does seem a perfect fit.

    Like

  14. James Slick October 19, 2015 / 6:52 pm

    I’m an American who has been using the British “Up Yours!” gesture for decades. It’s a wonderful addition to the traditional US “finger”!

    Liked by 1 person

  15. Dan October 22, 2015 / 5:12 am

    cf. album cover art by (and name of) the great Belfast punk band Stiff Little Fingers.

    Like

  16. Pat The Plant November 16, 2015 / 12:11 am

    Tony Keim in the Courier Mail (from Brisbane) has it as “the forks” in Australia up until the 1970s, which would make it a possible gesture for “fork you”. It was presumably a two-tined toasting fork, the fork of a tree or road or human body.

    Searching for more information is rather hampered by the existence of a place in Queensland called The Forks.

    http://www.couriermail.com.au/news/tradition-behind-the-bird/story-e6frer4f-1111118071016

    Like

  17. Pat The Plant November 16, 2015 / 11:29 pm

    The Oxford English Dictionary has “to fork the fingers” as extending the fingers towards a person as a mark of contempt with a quote from 1640.

    The full quote, from Anonymous’ “Wits Recreation”, is:

    **************************************************************
    255. On Collimus.

    If that Collimus any thing do lend,
    Or dog, or Horse, or Hawk unto his friend,
    He to endear the borrowers love the more,
    Saith he ne’r lent it any one before,
    Nor would to any but to him : His wife
    Having observ’d these speeches all her life,
    Behinde him forks her fingers, and doth cry,
    To none but you, I’de do this courtesie.

    **************************************************************

    I wonder if there is a relationship to the horns, los cuernos etc., where the index and little fingers are extended and the gesture implies the target is a cuckold.

    We also find this in “Carleton’s letters”, presumably the letters of Dudley Carleton, Viscount Dorchester.

    In 1606 he reported that the “king of Denmark made a sign with his two fingers to my lord admiral” indicating that it was two o’clock. The young wife of the seventy year old admiral took this as a slur on her honesty.

    This is reported in “A Dictionary of Sexual Language and Imagery in Shakespearean and Stuart Literature” by Gordon Williams. The entry on forks in that book is all about cuckold’s horns. Perhaps the British form of the Continental gesture was the v-sign rather than the classic bull horns gesture.

    Like

  18. lee August 30, 2016 / 7:40 am

    US:
    Do you give me the finger?
    No, but I do give the finger!

    UK:
    Do you give me the fingers?
    No, but I do give the fingers!

    Liked by 1 person

  19. J W November 6, 2016 / 3:20 pm

    Could it be that George Sr was actually giving support to the Australian government and “cheekily,” a la Churchill did to the Germans, telling the Australian protesters up-yours?
    Just saying.

    Like

  20. Alex December 1, 2016 / 2:25 pm

    The English two fingered salute goes back further than the second world war to the battle of Agincourt on the 25th October 1415.

    English Longbowmen were feared amongst the French and if ever the French got their hands on a longbowman they used to cut off the two fingers so as to stop them from being able to use their bows.

    Before the Battle of Agincourt started All of the English Longbowman stuck their two fingers up at the French.

    Like

      • Alex December 1, 2016 / 2:36 pm

        Ahhh….. This person has just presented a theory based upon words written 20 years after the fact and by a Frenchman I am not sure I would like to call that conclusive proof. Though Unlike many I am open to debate

        Like

  21. Mark Allen November 22, 2017 / 7:58 pm

    My mother was a teenager in Luton during the war, and she has told me Churchill knew exactly what he was doing. She can’t possibly know for sure, having never asked him, but she does confirm that “up yours, Hitler” was the message that was received.

    Like

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