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The middle finger

A deep dive into one of the world’s most universal gestures.

Published
  • Bird is the word

    Up yours. Screw off. You suck. Shove it. Get lost. But mostly: Eff you. These are the unmistakable meanings of the simple, crude, and highly effective middle finger gesture. It can be delivered as a sign of anger, frustration, disrespect, derision, rebellion, rejection, or general insult, and may be displayed forcefully, slyly, ironically, gleefully, or jokingly.

    The use of the middle finger as a rude expression dates back thousands of years; it may be the “most ubiquitous and longest lived insulting gesture in the world” (pdf), maintaining its shocking and controversial nature long after whatever symbolism actually inspired it faded into history. It’s also a truly international insult (although people in certain countries and regions have different ways of using their anatomy to express something anatomically impossible).

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  • Brief history

    419 BC: An Aristophanes play includes a character who gestures with his middle finger.

    300s BC: Greek philosopher Diogenes allegedly gives the finger to a crowd waiting to see the statesman and orator Demosthenes.

    1886: The middle finger is captured for the first time on camera in the US, displayed by baseball player Charles “Old Hoss” Radbourn in a team photo.

    1928: The Academy Award-nominated Speedy features silent film star Harold Lloyd giving himself the finger in a funhouse mirror, likely the earliest known appearance in a motion picture.

    1968: Crewmembers of the USS Pueblo, a US Navy ship attacked by North Korea, ruin propaganda prisoner-of-war photos taken of them by giving the finger.

    1969: Singer Johnny Cash is photographed giving the finger during his famous San Quentin State Prison set.

    1995: Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei begins a series of photographs, taken over two decades, featuring him giving his left finger to various cultural landmarks, starting with Tiananmen Square.

    2015: A middle finger icon is officially added to the emoji lexicon.

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  • The way we 🖕 now

    Some hand gestures are iconic—they are meant to mimic a specific thing or action. Other gestures are emblematic—they’re abstractions, like a 👍 or a 👌, and not directly representational.

    Which is the middle finger gesture? Anthropologist Desmond Morris believes it’s iconic. “The middle finger is the penis and the curled fingers on either side are the testicles,” he told the BBC.

    But Benjamin Bergen, director of the Language and Cognition Lab at the University of California, San Diego, did a study in 2019 to examine whether modern bird flippers actually associate the digit with the other body part. Using another common, iconic gesture as a control, Bergen found that 🖕did not make test subjects think of a penis, but 👉👌 did.

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  • Quotable

    “It seems like such an arbitrary, ridiculous thing to just pick a finger, and you show it to the person. It’s a finger. What does it mean? Someone shows me one of their fingers, and I’m supposed to feel bad. Is that the way it’s supposed to work?”

    Comedian Jerry Seinfeld

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  • Million-dollar question

    Is it ever illegal to flip the bird? Ira P. Robbins’s law-review article Digitus Impudicus: The Middle Finger and the Law” (pdf) says in America, not-uncommon convictions involving the gesture are almost always overturned.

    Elsewhere the bird doesn’t fly. In Germany, insults are illegal, and hundreds of thousands of cases, including some for the Stinkefinger, are brought every year, though almost always dismissed. France has a similar law, which landed a motorist in trouble when he flipped off a speed camera (his lawyers argued that it’s not illegal to insult a machine). Why are they so uptight? As legal scholar James Q. Whitman writes, “Rude behavior is regarded in both countries as an assault on the personal honor of its target, in a way that Americans would find difficult to comprehend” (pdf).

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  • Person of interest

    Image copyright: Germana/STAR MAX/IPx
    Carrie Fisher gives the middle finger

    Many famous people have been captured flipping off, including politicians, actors, and athletes. But when actress Carrie Fisher died at the end of 2016, several noted that she was photographed giving the one-fingered salute a remarkable number of times.

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  • Fun fact!

    Giving the finger became widely known as “flipping the bird” in the 1960s. In 1967, in possibly the first known use of the phrase in print, a music magazine article described the Grateful Dead as “flipping the bird” to the audience.

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  • International variations, listed

    Image copyright: Giphy
    Ross from Friends does a fist bump

    The middle finger is not universal—around the world, other gestures carry a similar meaning. Here are a few global variations on “fuck you”:

    🇬🇧 Great Britain: palm-back V-sign

    🇪🇺 Europe: forearm jerk, raising a fist with a bent arm while smacking that arm with the other hand

    🇧🇷 Brazil: 👌the English language okay sign is anything but in Brazil

    🇬🇷 Greece: hand up, palm out, known as the moutza

    🇫🇷 France: under-chin hand flick

    🇮🇳 India: under-front teeth thumb flick, known as the cuti

    🇹🇷 Turkey: the fig—pushing the thumb between the first and second fingers of a closed fist

    👯 Ross Geller nation: on the TV show Friends tapping two fists horizontally was a running gag

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  • Watch this!

    The middle finger, and creative ways to deploy it, has been featured prominently in numerous movies and TV shows. Multiple supercuts exist on YouTube, including this one, set to the Lily Allen song “Fuck You.”

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  • Further down the 🐰 hole

    Let’s review: The middle finger most likely once represented a penis, but is no longer directly associated with phallic imagery in the minds of most English speakers. Its delivery can be hilarious, but it’s also taboo, and even illegal in some places. So why do we even have words and gestures that are off-limits? Though it’s produced for children, the podcast But Why? answers this question, about the middle finger, and swear words of all kinds, with tremendous nuance. It’s also a safe listen for all ages and sensitivity levels.

    For an even deeper dive, Benjamin Bergen wrote a book called What the F: What Swearing Reveals About Our Language, Our Brains, and Ourselves. He says that for young people slurs based on gender, race, and sexual identity are far more offensive than profanity. Or check out the work of Gershon Legman, “self-taught scholar of dirty jokes.”

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