The Long, Angry History of Flipping the Bird
The middle finger is way older than you think.
Photo via Pixabay
In late October, a woman named Juli Briskman pulled off something that many Americans—plus many foreigners—would die to do.
Briskman, bless her heart, flipped Trump the bird.
While Trump’s motorcade was cruising through Sterling, Virginia, they passed Briskman who was on her bike. Briskman, realizing who was pulling past her, extended her arm and popped up that wonderful, old as time, middle finger salute to America’s special liddle guy. As a result of pulling of the much loved stunt, the 50-year-old Briskman was fired by her government contractor employer.
However, the hero of this tale is a defiant one and told Huffpo that she’d "do it again” if given the chance.
But what was Briskman really saying with that single digit salute?
Well, as I’m sure you know, the finger is one of the most cherished gestures in the Western world. It’s how we show disapproval to those who can’t hear our vulgarities for whatever reason, it’s how I tell that chachi dude in the black truck that he almost ran me down in a crosswalk, and, if you’re the Canadian editor of VICE Sports, how you say hello to me in the morning.
The history of the finger isn’t completely concrete, but, as Benjamin Bergen, director of the Language and Cognition Lab at the University of California in San Diego explains, we know flipping people off goes back not just centuries but millennia.
"We know that it goes back, at least, to Greek times,” Bergen told VICE. “It shows up in some Greek plays and where it's juxtaposed with other sorts of vulgar gestures, like the waggling of a penis for example. We also know that from records that it also showed up in plays in Roman times and in accounts of senate chamber conflict and so on."
"We know that it had a name in Roman times where it was called the indecent or impudent finger, the Digitus Impudicus. It continues for the following millennium as we know, there are some urban myths people tell about the origins but as far as we can tell none of them are true, it really has a several thousand year history."
Due to the ever shitty fact that time machines aren’t around yet, we don’t know 100 percent what the original middle finger meant, but we have an idea and that idea is all about them dicks. That’s right, as far as we know, the middle finger was pretty much intended to represent a dick. Speaking to the BBC, renowned anthropologist and author of The Naked Ape, Desmond Morris said that the by flipping the finger you’re saying “this is a phallus” and offering it to the recipient.
"The middle finger is the penis and the curled fingers on either side are the testicles,” explained Morris. “By doing it, you are offering someone a phallic gesture.”
One of the first recorded mentions of the finger came in The Clouds, a text written by 424 BC by the playwright Aristophanes when a dude named Strepsiades flips off Socrates by pretending his finger is a dick getting hard—that’s right, [a fictional version of] Socrates was the first dude to get flipped off. Around a hundred years later another mention of the finger appears in the Lives of Eminent Philosophers where yet another philosopher gets flipped off—in all honest, I’m starting to think these philosophers deserved it guys.
As power and influence migrated from the Greeks to the Romans so did the middle finger. In several written Roman works which include poems and plays the gesture popped up. Legend has it that Caligula, the mad emperor of Rome, even had his subjects kiss his middle finger (which he waggled in a suggestive manner) instead of his hand which, again, reinforces the notion of the finger as a phallus.
The middle finger lost a little steam in the middle ages, something that most likely came about by the influence of the puritans in the Catholic church. In a 2008 paper tracking the middle finger’s relationship with the law, Ira P. Robbins writes that the gesture made its way to North America no later than 1886. Why do we know this? Well, we know it because a fucking amazing baseball player named Charles “Old Hoss” Radbourn who played for the Boston Beaneaters flipped off the camera in that year—it is, as far as we know, the first photographed occasion of the bird being flipped.
Now, if you’re wondering why we call it flipping the bird, well, the answer is kinda simple. Centuries ago you would taunt or express displeasure at a dickhead by hissing like a goose (the asshole of the bird world) at them—it became so common that people just started referring to this act as “the goose.” In the 20th century the term had morphed to “the bird” and when hissing at people in public (thankfully) fell out of fashion it became connected with our beloved finger gesture of old.
While the gesture wasn’t birthed in North America it has assuredly become its home for the last little while. In fact, it’s the dominance of American culture across the world that has given the finger its current shining moment in the sun. Thanks to the creeping influence of American-made entertainment and media, more cultures than ever know what our fine little gesture means—which means you shouldn’t randomly flip off people while abroad because A) you’re an asshole if you do and B) they probably know what it means.
"Until maybe 20 years ago, the middle finger didn't mean anything in Japan or Korea,” said Bergen. “Since then, with more and more movies and television coming in, now all of a sudden everyone in Japan knows what that thing is."
"If French cinema had taken over the world after World War II then we probably would be doing the fist thing."
Thanks to American hegemony we now have works of art such as the above.
Of course now, when that dude in the shiny black pickup truck sporting the wifebeater and trucker hat blasts past you in the crosswalk and all can do is flip off the sight of his truck nuts flapping in the wind as he barrels onward to his cousin’s bed, you aren’t saying “LOOK AT MY DICK YOU PIECE OF SHIT.” That’s because, over time, the middle finger has moved away from the literal representation of a dick and more or less just means “fuck you.” This is something that is par for the course, explains Bergen, especially so with crude gestures.
"There is a Brazilian obscene gesture that looks like the A-OK symbol but upside down and meant to look like an anus and it just means the same thing that the middle finger means,” said Bergen. “It just means 'fuck you,' 'fuck off,' or something like that it doesn't mean 'look at my anus' anymore."
Gestures are as old as time. Early humans used them prior to language being around, something we can see within primate communication current day. Prior to speaking the mother language of where they are born, babies often use gestures to communicate to their parents.
"It's a precursor to language both in development and in the history of our species. Gestures has a very direct connection to our emotions,” said Bergen. “When you are in a direct confrontation with someone, you do things physically to send a signal of what's going to happen next—what you want to convey to the person."
So I want you to remember that next time you’re flipping the bird, friends. I want you to remember that you’re not just telling a dickwad in a motorcade to fuck off, you’re connecting to a former time.
You’re singing an ode to our past.
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