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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Flight of the Conchords uckin’ with my shi-

New Zealand comedy duo Flight of the Conchords, consisting of Bret McKenzie and Jemaine Clement, had a two-season TV series in 2007–09 full of inspired parody and goofy adventures. The show’s language is generally mild or euphemised:

Flight of the Conchords 1 - Jemaine Clement flup euphemism

So when truly strong language is called for, it’s a big deal. Here, mild-mannered and long-suffering band manager Murray Hewitt finally loses his patience:

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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)

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The Finger, or “Bird Is the Word”

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.

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