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What’s the Real Story About Why We Flip Someone the Middle Finger?

Middle finger
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We’re not talking about giving someone a parakeet for his or her birthday. We’re talking about flipping someone the bird, or the middle finger — a time-honored insult that has been around for thousands of years.

Here’s a little more information about how this very telling gesture got started, in all its variations.

The Greeks and their middle fingers

It seems that the middle finger is a ‘civilized’ substitute for the male phallus. In the wild, primates often use some kind of phallic display to show dominance over other members of their species. Greek philosophers and playwrights, such as Aristophanes, first made use of the middle finger to mock and belittle their rivals and counterparts. Behavior like that really put the ‘class’ into the Classical Age.

The Romans and a certain digit

The Romans imported Greek culture en masse. The rudeness of an extended middle finger was no exception. The Roman Emperor Caligula was so fond of taunting certain subjects with his middle finger that he often made them kiss it. A man by the name of Cassius, who the emperor humiliated with this gesture on more than one occasion, ended up killing Caligula for making him submit to such a demeaning sign.

The English bowmen keep on plucking

In England, holding up the middle finger is a very offensive gesture, as is holding up the middle and index fingers together. The French, during many years of conflict with the English in the 15th century, had the bright idea of cutting off the middle fingers of English bowmen, so that they would no longer be able to pluck the strings on their bows.

The English Yew tree

English longbows were made out of Yew wood. Sending an arrow through the air was referred to as ‘plucking the yew.’ When the French lost a battle and failed to capture a significant number of English archers, the English decided to mock their foes. They would hold up their middle finger (or fingers) for the French to see, and shout out that they could still “pluck yew.”

Eventually the ‘p’ sound in ‘pluck’ was substituted with the easier to pronounce ‘f’, and the gesture and the accompanying insult became part of a storied history. The feathers on the arrows that the archers would let loose led to the expression ‘giving someone the bird.’

Stuck in traffic

Think about this colorful history the next time someone cuts you off in traffic and you flip him or her the bird. Are you expressing your primate dominance over the other person? Or are you simply venting your anger from the relative safety of your car with a very ancient gesture? If it was good enough for the Greeks, it should be good enough for you.

[Ooze]

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