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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.

Here's what you can do with your "Socratic method"...

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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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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May 23, 2017
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