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:
(Image from Morris et al. 1979)
Finally I was called as a witness in my own behalf. I took the stand and Mr. Bendich examined me.
Q. Mr. Bruce, Mr. Wollenberg yesterday said (to Dr. Gottlieb) specifically that you had said, “Eat it.” Did you say that?
A. No, I never said that.
Q. What did you say, Mr. Bruce?
A. What did I say when?
Q. On the night of October fourth.
MR. WOLLENBERG: There’s no testimony that Mr. Wollenberg said that Mr. Bruce said, “Eat it,” the night of October fourth, if your honor please.
THE COURT: The question is: What did he say?
THE WITNESS: I don’t mean to be facetious. Mr. Wollenberg said “Eat it.” I said “Kiss it.”
MR. BENDICH: Do you apprehend there is a significant difference between the two phrases, Mr. Bruce?
A. “Kissing it” and “eating it,” yes, sir. Kissing my mother goodbye and eating my mother goodbye, there is a quantity of difference.
—Lenny Bruce, How to Talk Dirty and Influence People
If there was ever an example of a manipulation and exploitation of the context in which words were intentionally made to be confusing, that would be it. Taken out of context, both kiss and eat are entirely benign. We do them all the time, although we should probably be doing more of the former and less of the latter. Taken in context, Bruce’s use of “kissing it” had the exact same intention as “eating it.” In no way was the verb “kissing,” as Bruce used it here, similar to the kissing he might bestow upon his mother. In fact, had it been a French court, “kissing it” would have been even more derogatory that “eating it” since the French use “baiser”—to kiss—as a correlative to our “fucking.” Calling someone a “baiseur” is tantamount to us calling him a “fucker.” Direct swearing in public was severely frowned upon in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and it was subject to fine or even imprisonment. Satirists like Bruce therefore often couched their expletives in careful substitution of double entendre. I say “often,” because it was also Bruce’s custom to shoot straight from the hip with unvarnished four-letter words—and longer. Whether it was his rants against government or his playful dissecting of words and phrases, I would go on to add that if there was one individual in the last hundred years who altered the way we speak in public, it was Lenny Bruce.
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.
Swearing and the public have an intimate but uneasy relationship. Eric Partridge bowdlerised fuck with an asterisk in his landmark Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, but the book was still censured fiercely for the word’s inclusion. The explosive power of the F-bomb is encoded in that very term, which along with other euphemisms allows it to be discussed in public without tainting one’s hands or mouth.
Rob Chirico’s new book Damn! A Cultural History of Swearing in Modern America casts a wry and probing eye on the colourful status of off-colour language in American culture over the last century or so, with a few forays further back and further afield. The US, he writes, is undergoing ‘a linguistic, and therefore cultural, shift that is passively opening up to an amplified inclusion of profanity’. This provides the backdrop for a lively examination of the terrain and our divergent attitudes towards swearing.