Why Is The Middle Finger Offensive?

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The middle finger is one of our species' oldest and most ubiquitous insulting gestures. But why is waving one of your fingers offensive? And what are some other age-old ways to express your displeasure with silly hand shapes?

The Middle Finger

Like the Devil Himself, the middle finger bears many names and adopts many guises. There's the "single-digit salute" favored by punk rockers and rebellious celebrities. Or the "expressway digit," a remarkable single-sign code by which California drivers communicate their complex emotions. It's also known as "the bird," a poor symbolic avian that is endlessly "flipped" and "flicked." It can be displayed statically, waggling and waving, thrusting with rage, or drooping dispassionately from the hand of a rapper.

Long before punk rock and eight-lane highways, the middle finger was known as the digitus impudicus or digitus infamis (indecent or infamous digit) by Romans and medieval Europeans. Augustus Caesar once booted an entertainer for giving a heckler the finger. And the lunatic emperor Caligula -- famed for such crimes as wearing women's clothes and murdering indiscriminately -- was said to have habitually offered his digitus infamis to be kissed by his enemies, just to flaunt his imperial disdain. Until, of course, one of those enemies stabbed Caligula in the neck.

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Even before the Romans, an Athenian playwright and comedian named Aristophanes created a feisty character who gives Socrates the finger. It was a unique way to respond to all those irritating questions. Nobody can say Socrates didn't ask for it.

There are no convincing claims about the primordial "meaning" of the middle finger or the origin of its disrepute, except that when it's stuck up alone it resembles a penis. (Some consider the fist below to serve an essential role in this resemblance to genitals.) I guess people think that's answer enough, since everyone's supposed to know already what a penis "means," and it's supposed to be bad. I can't say I fully understand.

Arab & Russian variations
Aristophanes might provide the earliest literary reference to the gesture, but that's no reason to think he came up with it, or that the middle finger was offensive only to Greeks. The finger is somewhat universal, and yet, as with most things, different regions have their own variations: two of the most enriching, I think, are from the Arabs and the Russians. In Arabian lands, the equivalent gesture consists of an outstretched hand, palm down, with all fingers splayed except the middle, which sticks downwards. Perhaps it's a little more ambiguous than the standard American finger, but I find it wonderfully evocative. The Russian version twists our anatomical expectations by bending the middle finger of one hand back with the forefinger of the other in a gesture they call "looking under the cat's tail." Few offensive hand-signs attain such splendid specificity.

The Fig

iStock_000003611148XSmall-fig.jpgAnother old favorite is the fig. Try this one out for yourself: make a first, then stick your thumb between your middle and index finger. Easy. In the United States, this gesture has become innocuous, even child-friendly, as part of the nose-stealing game we all know and cherish. That's why you won't see the fig in movies or music videos, and why it's useless on highways. In other places and other eras, however, people have tended to see less of a nose, more of a vagina. And apparently vaginas "mean" something about as bad as penises, so another insulting gesture was born, euphemistically dubbed "the fig."

Giving God the fig
Dante knew the fig as le fiche and granted it an appearance in his Divine Comedy. Somewhere in the eighth circle of hell, where unrepentant thieves are tormented by snakes and lizards, Dante encounters a sinner named Vanni Fucci. Fucci gives an account of his life of crime, which he ends by throwing his fists in the air, sticking his thumbs through the fingers, and giving God the fig. For Dante, this futile affront epitomizes the pride and defiance of sin. And it doesn't do much for Fucci, who is quickly strangled and gagged by serpents.

Perhaps Fucci's behavior wasn't unusual in Dante's time. It was popular enough, in any case, to justify a law in Tuscany that spelled out punishments for anyone caught making figs at or mooning images of God or the Virgin.

The many meanings of the fig
In ancient Greece, the fig was not used to offend god or man, but to dispel black magic and deflect the evil eye. Some speculate that the ancients believed overt sexual displays -- such as flashing the fig -- would distract dangerous spirits. This protective meaning of the gesture still has adherents today in Portugal and Brazil, where good luck charms often depict the sign.

In northern Europe, the fig is considered an overt sexual invitation -- which could be revolting or welcome, depending on the circumstances. But in modern-day Greece -- as in France, Turkey, and many other nations -- the fig is an outright offense, as it was for Dante.

The V Sign

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The V sign -- index and middle finger extended and spread -- usually stands for victory. Winston Churchill famously displayed the "two-finger salute" during World War II, sometimes squeezing a cigar between his fingers. And Richard Nixon's use of the V was equally iconic, if more paradoxical, since he flashed it during the Vietnam War and just after his 1974 resignation from office. Alternately, the hippies used the V to signal peace and love to their fellow protesters.

But as those who've traveled to Britain might know, the V can backfire with a flick of the wrist. Palm out, the sign is encouraging, an announcement of victory or peace; turn the palm in, however, and the V broadcasts to any Anglo bystanders a "Piss off!" equivalent to the middle finger or the fig. As you can probably guess, this leads to embarrassing mishaps. President George H.W. Bush, for example, made the mistake of attempting the V during his 1991 visit to Australia: his hand was turned the wrong way, though, so he was shamed, mocked, and reviled by the press.

Early V signs in history and literature
Why would the V sign be insulting? One obvious answer is that it doubles the implication of the middle finger -- and everyone knows two phalli are worse than one. But thank heavens there's a more engaging (though likely apocryphal) origin-story. During the Hundred Years' War, chivalrous French knights were frustrated by the undignified combat methods of English longbowmen. They fought from a distance, ran when confronted, and, worst of all, they were usually poor. So, legend says, the French threatened to sever the bowfingers (fore and middle) of any archer they captured in battle. When outnumbered English forces managed to rout the French at Crécy and Agincourt, victorious bowmen then flaunted those two fingers, palm in, at their defeated foes, giving the V sign both its meanings -- victory and "Up yours!" -- at once. Turns out it wasn't just English weapons that were unchivalrous.

Whether or not that tale is true, the French certainly knew of the V's crude connotation by the 16th century, when the bawdy satirist François Rabelais included it in his novel, Gargantua and Pantagruel. An English scholar named Thaumaste challenges Pantagruel to a debate conducted in sign-language, "For these are matters," he explains, "so intricate and difficult that ... mere human speech will not be adequate to deal with them." The exchange that follows could serve as a catalogue of crude, filthy, and generally offensive gestures for anyone seeking inspiration. And, sure enough, during the absurd exchange, Pantagruel flashes the V at his foe (among other more grotesque signs) -- perhaps the first explicit reference to what is now a favorite British insult.

For Bigger Problems, There's a Bigger Gesture, With More Thrust

The ever-popular forearm jerk, known in Brazil as "the banana," is conventionally interpreted as an exaggerated variant of the traditional middle finger. It's intended effect, whatever that may be, is supposedly magnified by bringing both arms into play -- either by pushing down on the elbow of the thrusting arm, or reaching across the chest and slapping the thrusting arm's shoulder. The banana seems like a lot of unnecessary work to most people, and its popularity has suffered accordingly.

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February 2, 2009 - 7:43am
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