Why Is The Middle Finger Offensive?

The middle finger is one of our species' oldest and most ubiquitous insulting gestures. But why is waving one of your fingers offensive? David Clark answered this question for us back in 2009, and we're reposting it today in honor of a one-finger salute that aired on MSNBC this morning.

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.

Arab and 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.

Quick True/False: World Capitals
Bain News Service - Library of Congress, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
10 Pats Born on St. Patrick's Day
A photo from the 1919 wedding of Princess Patricia of Connaught to the Hon. Alexander Ramsay.
A photo from the 1919 wedding of Princess Patricia of Connaught to the Hon. Alexander Ramsay.
Bain News Service - Library of Congress, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Need some St. Patrick's Day conversation fodder that doesn't involve leprechauns or four-leaf clovers? Ask your friends to name a "Pat" born on St. Patrick's Day. If they can't, they owe you a drink—then you can wow them with this list of 10.


Princess Patricia was the granddaughter of Queen Victoria, who gave up all of her royal titles when she married a commoner. She was born at Buckingham Palace on March 17, 1886.


The Dallas star was born on March 17, 1949. And here's a totally random fact about Duffy: His nephew is Barry Zito, former MLB pitcher for the Oakland Athletics and the San Francisco Giants.


Pattie Boyd
Larry Ellis, Express/Getty Images

Pattie Boyd is well-known to lovers of classic rock: She has been married three times, including once to George Harrison and once to Eric Clapton, who both wrote a couple of the most romantic songs in rock history in her honor (including The Beatles's "Something" and Clapton's "Wonderful Tonight"). Boyd was a model when she met Harrison on the set of A Hard Day's Night in 1964; the pair were married two years later. They divorced in 1977 and she married Clapton, Harrison's close friend, in 1979. She also had an affair with Ronnie Wood of the Rolling Stones toward the end of her marriage to The Quiet Beatle.


Belfast-born Pat Rice is a former footballer and coach who spent the bulk of his career with Arsenal F.C. (that's "football club," a.k.a. soccer to us Americans). He joined the Gunners in 1964 as a mere apprentice, turning pro a couple of years later. He became captain in 1977 and left the club for a few years in the early 1980s to go to Watford, but returned after he retired from playing in 1984. In 2012, after nearly 30 years with the organization, he announced his retirement.


Patty Maloney is an actress with dwarfism who stands just three feet, 11 inches tall. She has appeared in many movies and T.V. shows over the years, including operating the Crypt Keeper puppet in Tales from the Crypt. She also played Chewbacca's son Lumpy in The Star Wars Holiday Special.


Michael C. Hall and Mathew St. Patrick in 'Six Feet Under'

Ok, so Mathew St. Patrick is the stage name of the actor, but he was born Patrick Matthews in Philadelphia on March 17, 1968. You probably know him best as David's boyfriend Keith on Six Feet Under.


He may not be a household name, but the recording artists Patrick Adams writes for and helps produce certainly are. Adams has been involved in the careers of Salt-N-Pepa, Sister Sledge, Gladys Knight, Rick James, and Coolio, among others.


It's possible you look at Patrick McDonnell's work every day, depending on which comics your newspaper carries. McDonnell draws a strip called Mutts featuring a dog and a cat named Earl and Mooch, respectively. Charles Schulz called it one of the best comic strips of all time.


 Singer/Guitarist Billy Corgan of Smashing Pumpkins performs onstage during Live Earth New York at Giants Stadium on July 7, 2007 in East Rutherford, New Jersey
Evan Agostini, Getty Images

Yes, you know him better as just plain old Billy Corgan: he's the face of the Smashing Pumpkins, engages in public feuds with Courtney Love, and maybe once dated Jessica Simpson. He made his debut on March 17, 1967.


Patricia Ford is a retired model probably best known for her Playboy photoshoots in the 1990s.


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