This is a guest post by Cory O’Brien (@bettermyths), who is currently studying American Sign Language (ASL) at Columbia College Chicago. Cory has published two swear-laden books, George Washington is Cash Money and Zeus Grants Stupid Wishes, and runs a Swear of the Month Club which you can subscribe to at: patreon.com/bettermyths.
The signers in the GIFs below are Ethan Cook and Peter Wujcik, Deaf ASL tutors at Columbia College Chicago.
* * *
Whenever I tell someone that I’m studying American Sign Language, there is a nonzero chance that they’ll trot out the same tired joke: “Oh yeah? I know some sign language! [Flips me the bird.]” They laugh, and I laugh, and we promptly stop being friends. Really, though, these people have no idea just how right they are. It’s only that, when you’re talking about a language that has spent hundreds of years figuring out how to squeeze the absolute most meaning out of every part of a hand, merely throwing up a middle finger is the linguistic equivalent of showing up to a duel and then firing your pistol straight into the air.
In English, the middle finger is a gesture, as opposed to a word. A gesture is a physical (or verbal) action, like a nod or a head shake or a grunt, that you can’t use as a part of a longer sentence. You can’t say “[middle finger] you, Steve!” You can dress your middle finger up with all kinds of fancy pageantry – pretending to peel a banana, or scratch your eye, or crank a jack-in-the-box, for example – but the meaning is always more or less the same: Fuck you.
In ASL, the middle finger itself still isn’t a word, but it’s not exactly a gesture either. It’s a part of a word, a morpheme. Signs in ASL have five distinct elements that give them meaning: Location, Palm Orientation, Hand Shape, Movement, and Non-Manual Markers (essentially facial expressions). In ASL, the iconic meaning of the middle finger (an erect cock and balls) has been almost entirely eliminated, but the emotional connotations of the gesture have been retained. So, when incorporated into a sign, the middle finger provides the hand shape, but the meaning of that hand shape in context varies drastically depending on the other parameters used, allowing for an endless array of middle-finger-based swears and idioms. What follows is a mere sampling of that variety, and the techniques used to create it.
Whereas in English we flip someone off with the back of our hand oriented towards the offending party, ASL has made the palm orientation a meaning component, adapting the gesture so that the middle finger points towards the object of the swear:
This is part of a larger tendency in ASL to encode subject–object relationships with directional verbs. Another example is the idiom “Mutual Hatred”:
Here the two middle fingers stand in for two people who really fucking hate each other.
Just as we can emphasize spoken English by speaking more loudly, ASL signs can be made larger and more exaggerated. In the following sign (which roughly translates to “Fucking shit.”), notice how the signer draws his middle finger back before jamming it into his other hand, as if winding up for a punch.
Facial expressions carry a lot of weight in ASL. The same sign may mean precisely opposite things depending on the non-manual markers that accompany it.
Here, the meaning is obviously positive, something like “Fuck yeah,” or “Fuckin’ A.” If the exact same sign were produced with a head shake and a grimace rather than a head nod and pursed lips, the meaning would be more akin to “Aw fuck,” or “Fuck me.”
Hand Shape Play
The middle finger can also be substituted for the standard hand shape of an otherwise innocuous sign. The location, orientation, and movement of the original sign are retained, with the only difference being inclusion of the middle finger. This may be done for the sake of emphasis,
… or play
Here’s an example of a sign that uses both hand shape play and directionality to paint a pretty clear picture.
ASL is, by and large, a more direct language than English. One side effect of this is that swearing in ASL, though always a marker of a more casual register, is not necessarily profane. In other words, someone interpreting from ASL into English would not always be justified in translating a middle finger as some variation on the word “fuck.” Even when used directionally, as in this case:
the meaning might best be translated as: “I don’t want to do that,” rather than “Fuck that.” It’s not unheard of for children to use this sign in this way. It’s not appropriate for formal discourse, but it’s not exactly taboo either.
This is of course very context-dependent. Depending on the situation, this sign:
might mean “Fuck all y’all,” or “Zero fucks given,” or simply “I can’t even.”
The middle finger has a long history of use in America, but its true origins lie in ancient Rome. Many believe that the gesture first came to the United States by way of Italian immigrants. This nicely explains how the middle finger found its way into ASL as well. In fact, ASL has adopted a number of other vulgar gestures from Italian, including “up yours” and the chin flick. It is likely, however, that the bird as an offensive hand shape found its way into ASL a little while after its adoption into English, as evidenced by this now-archaic sign for the Willis (formerly Sears) Tower in Chicago:
Like I said, this is just the tip of the cock-and-balls-shaped iceberg when it comes to swearing in ASL. If you’ve got any questions or opinions …
… please leave them down below.