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Where does giving the finger originate from?

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Giving someone "the finger" is one of the basest violations in modern culture, but its origins date back over 2500 years. The first written record of the insult occurred in ancient Greece, where the playwright Aristophanes made a crude joke mixing up the middle finger and the penis. Even back then, the bird was considered an aggressive, phallic put-down.

It has been argued by anthropologists that the finger is a a variant of a classic "phallic aggressive" gesture used by primates. By jabbing a threatening phallus at your enemy like a wild animal, you aren't just belittling him, but also making him your sexual inferior. Instead of using a real penis, civilized Janes and Platos called upon the substitute wieners within their own hands to mock, threaten, and humiliate opponents. And boy, did it.

When the Romans imported the art, music, and culture of the Greeks, the finger came along, too. The digitus infamis or digitus impudicus (infamous or indecent finger) is mentioned several times in the literature of ancient Rome. From the epigrammatist Martial: "Laugh loudly, Sextillus, when someone calls you a queen and put your middle finger out." (The verse continues: "But you are no sodomite nor fornicator either, Sextillus, nor is Vetustina's hot mouth your fancy." Martial, and Roman poets in general, could be pretty out there, subject-matter-wise. Another verse begins: "You love to be sodomized, Papylus...") In another reference Martial writes that a certain party "points a finger, an indecent one, at" some other people.

The historian Suetonius, writing about Augustus Caesar, says the emperor "expelled [the entertainer] Pylades...because when a spectator started to hiss, he called the attention of the whole audience to him with an obscene movement of his middle finger." The mad emperor Caligula, as an insult, would extend his middle finger for supplicants to kiss. One of his subjects, Cassius, who Caligula often taunted as being too effeminate, finally had enough humiliation and assassinated him. Clearly, the bird was not to be taken lightly.


Stories are still told about the gesture originating from a French threat to amputate the fingers of English archers. These stories are a complete fabrication originating in the late 20th Century. Furthermore, the middle-finger gesture was almost completely unknown in Britain before the 1960s, where a two-finger gesture is preferred. Again, this gesture does not have its origins in the 100 Years War. Similarly, there is no truth in the myth that "the bird" refers to the feathers of English arrows.

In 1644, John Bulwer wrote Chirologica: of the Naturall Language of the Hande as a guide to common hand signals for the deaf. The finger, or convicium facio (meaning, I provoke an argument) was a "natural expression of scorn and contempt." Although he thought it was horrid to use, the deaf might have had no better way to express themselves after someone dumped the contents of a chamber pot on them in the street.

During the Middle Ages, the finger went underground. It was still known, but the Catholic Church frowned upon its use, as the middle finger was supposed to be holy in the Mass. The unholy insult lurked deep within the hearts of filthy-minded folks everywhere, hiding from sight until the 19th century when it began to crop up again thanks to a new invention - photography.

In 1886, Hall of Fame baseball pitcher Charles "Old Hoss" Radbourn slipped his little finger fastball into the Boston Beaneaters team picture. The split-second art of photography could turn the once-boring painted portrait into a spontaneous work of rebellion, humor and spunk. Americans everywhere quickly got into the act.

In the polyglot, immigrant mish-mash of early 20th century America, the finger was the one symbol every man, woman and dog could understand. With the invention of the automobile, it could be delivered from behind the safety of glass & steel, and at great speeds. All the finger needs to deliver its punch is a clear line of sight.

Throughout the 20th century, the finger has penetrated all levels of society. Roughhewn farmers did it, hippies did it, and even the Vice President of the United States got into the act. At a campaign stop for Senator Bob Dole in 1976, Nelson Rockefeller was heckled by protesters telling him what they thought of his Vietnam war policy by casting their middle finger votes. Never one to back down, Rocky just flipped it right back. Considering the Vice-president of the USA could flip off with impunity, it is no surprise that only a few months later, an appellate court in Connecticut ruled the finger was not legally obscene, releasing it from its gilded cage.

With the new millennium, we can rest assured this once endangered bird is thriving. Today it appears in films, books, school yards, and most recently, network television (on "NYPD Blue"). Instead of shunning this "obscene" gesture, we must treasure its rich cultural heritage. We are living in the Golden Age of The Finger. Get used to it. Do not imagine for a moment that the Finger will allow itself to be co-opted. It is no mere catch-phrase to be researched, quantified and catalogued for commercial use. It is a threat, a mantra, a way of being that comes directly from the base of the hypothalamus directly to the last digit of your thrusting destiny
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