Friday, April 20, 2012

History of the Middle Finger

Conflicts have long since given rise to popular culture. Thanks largely in part to the long-standing conflict between the English and the French, we now know where one popular expression originated...

Before the Battle of Agincourt in 1415, the French, anticipating victory over the English, proposed to cut off the middle finger of all captured English soldiers. Without the middle finger it would be impossible to draw the renowned English longbow, impeding the ability to fight in the future. 

This famous English longbow was made from the native English Yew tree, and the act of drawing the longbow was known as "plucking the yew" or "pluck yew". 

Much to the bewilderment of the French, the English won a major upset and began mocking the French by waving their middle fingers at the defeated French, saying, "See, we can still pluck yew!" 

Since 'pluck yew' is difficult to pronounce - the difficult consonant cluster at the beginning has gradually been changed to a fricative "F", and thus the words often used in conjunction with the one-finger-salute.

Note: The pheasant feathers on the arrows used with the longbow resulted in the coloquial expression "giving the bird".  

And yew thought yew knew every plucking thing! 

Since the days of ancient Greek comedy, κατάπυγον (katapugon, from kata, "downwards" and pugē - πυγή, "rump, buttocks) has been a reference to the middle finger to insult another person. In Ancient Roman writings the finger was referred to as the digitus impudicus (impudent finger). 

In Bruce J. Malina's, The New Testament World: Insights from Cultural Anthropology, 3rd Ed. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), extending the finger was one of the many methods used to divert the ever-present threat of the evil eye offense. 

It is believed that the gesture reached the United States via Italian immigrants. The earliest known documentation of this occurrence comes from a photograph taken of the Boston Beaneaters giving the finger to their rival, the New York Giants. 

Baseball pitcher, Old Hoss Radbourn, pictured (back row, far left) giving the finger.
First known photograph of the gesture. 

History has given rise to a number of obscene gestures, with "the finger" being called "the universal sign of disrespect."  

For more information on offensive gestures, consult Roger E. Axtell's, Gestures: The Do's and Taboos of Body Language Around the World. 

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