The middle finger in American Sign Language

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.

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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.

Directionality

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:

Peter Wujcik signs "Fuck me? Fuck you!" in ASL

This is part of a larger tendency in ASL to encode subject–object relationships with directional verbs. Another example is the idiom “Mutual Hatred”:

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Biting the fig. The finger, part II

I wrote about some of the diverse uses of the bird, the single-digit salute, the flip-off—the finger—in my book Damn!, and subsequently here at Strong Language in my digital piece, “Bird is the Word.” I found roots that harked back to a passage in The Clouds by Aristophanes, and to ancient Rome, where it was called the digitus impudicus, or the “impudent finger.” In an epigram of the first century poet Martial, he “points his finger, and the insulting one at that, towards Alcon, Dasius and Symmachus.”  Emperor Caligula offering of his extended middle finger, rather than his hand, to his subjects to kiss was seen as scandalous. But that was Nero for you. What else did you expect? 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. Although my next book, the cookbook memoir Not My Mother’s Kitchen, did not contain a single cussword or allusion to one, I discovered along the way that the Italian peninsula still had their fingers on the pulse of profanity—only this time with figs. Continue reading

Sweary maps 2: Swear harder

You may remember Jack Grieve’s swear maps of the USA. Now he has a nifty new web app called Word Mapper that lets anyone with an internet connection make use of the raw data behind those maps.

Being a mature grown-up, I put on my @stronglang hat and went searching for swears and euphemisms. What emerged were some intriguing – and visually very appealing – patterns of rude word use in contemporary discourse:

word mapper us swears fuckery

word mapper us swears shitty

About 60 maps follow, so fair warning: It’s an image-heavy post.

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You must be piss-taken

It wasn’t too long ago that I began to notice speakers of British English (BrE) using various forms of “taking the piss.” This is a most curious expression and even in context the meaning is not readily apparent if you are unfamiliar with it. Does it mean “to be offended” or maybe “over the top”?

But recently I saw an American speaker use it in a mainstream publication, so if it’s becoming a Transatlantic crossover, we need to chase it down.

Here are a few examples spotted in the wild:

1 I was alive when Ibrahomvic took the piss out of England.

2 Beware of Gary—He will take the piss and make you laugh …

3 United Nations take the piss out of the Beatles with new reissue.

4 Do you notice when people take the piss out of you or try to mess with you?

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Piss off, Aesop?

In her latest post for Strong Language, Nancy Friedman enlightened us with some happenings of shit, which excremental theme Ben Yagoda fittingly continued in his print on bullshit. Some months back, Nancy also covered shit‘s execratory counterpart, piss, while Iva Cheung had the floor with some very unparliamentary language, including an instance of pissant (see Section 12).

For Strong Language standards, pissant is piddly. Yet the word nonetheless struck me as a curious little vulgar vermin that’s not yet crawled around these pages, though the site’s very own James Harbeck treated the word similarly some years back, which I discovered – like a pissant – just as I was finishing this post.

Piddly or repeat aside, it’s one of the (rare) times you’d actually be excused for confusing etymology with entomology, to the relief of many word historians.

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