The finger

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The finger

In Western culture, the finger (as in giving someone the finger or the bird1), also known as the finger wave, the middle finger, flipping someone off,1 flipping the bird, shooting the bird, the rude finger or the one finger salute is an obscene hand gesture, which is often a sign of extreme or moderate contempt, roughly equivalent in meaning to "fuck off", "fuck you", "shove it up your ass", "up yours" or "go fuck yourself." It is performed by showing the back of a closed fist that has only the middle finger extended upwards, though in some locales the thumb is extended. Extending the thumb is a symbol of wanting sexual intercourse. Extending the finger is also considered a symbol of contempt in several cultures, especially Western cultures. Many cultures do use similar gestures to display their disrespect, though others use it to express pointing with no intentional disrespect toward other cultures.

The gesture dates back to Ancient Greece and was also used in Ancient Rome. Historically, it represented the phallus. In some modern cultures, it has gained increasing acceptance as a sign of disrespect, and has been used by music artists, athletes, and politicians. Most still view the gesture as obscene.

Origin

Classical era

The middle finger gesture was used in Ancient times as a symbol of sexual intercourse, in a manner meant to degrade, intimidate and threaten the individual receiving the gesture.2 It also represented the phallus, with the fingers next to the middle finger representing testicles;3 from its close association, the gesture may have assumed apotropaic potency.4 In the 1st-century Mediterranean world, extending the finger was one of many methods used to divert the ever-present threat of the evil eye.5

The Cynic philosopher Diogenes, pictured by Gérôme with the large jar in which he lived; when strangers at the inn were expressing their wish to catch sight of the great orator Demosthenes, Diogenes is said to have stuck out his middle finger and exclaimed "this, for you, is the demagogue of the Athenians"6

In Greek the gesture was known as the katapygon78 (κατάπυγον, from kata – κατά, "downwards"9 and pugē – πυγή, "rump, buttocks"10). In ancient Greek comedy, the finger was a gesture of insult toward another person, with the term katapugon also referring to "a male who submits to anal penetration"11 or katapygaina to a female.12 In Aristophanes's comedy The Clouds (423 BC),13 when the character Socrates is quizzing his student on poetic meters, Strepsiades declares that he knows quite well what a dactyl is, and gives the finger. The gesture is a visual pun on the two meanings of the Greek word dactylos, both "finger" and the rhythmic measure composed of a long syllable and two short, like the joints of a finger (— ‿ ‿, which also appears as a visual pun on the penis and testicles in a medieval Latin text14). Socrates reacts to the gesture as boorish and childish.1315 The gesture recurs as a form of mockery in Peace, alongside farting in someone's face;1617 the usage is later explained in the Suda and included in the Adagia of Erasmus.1819 The verb "to play the Siphnian" appears in a fragment of Aristophanes and has a similar meaning;2021 the usage is once again explained in the Suda, where it is said to mean "to touch the anus with a finger".22 Diogenes Laertius records how the Cynic philosopher Diogenes directed the gesture at the orator Demosthenes in 4th-century BC Athens.6 In the Discourses of Epictetus, Diogenes's target is instead one of the sophists.23

In Latin, the middle finger was the digitus impudicus, meaning the "shameless, indecent or offensive finger".3 In the 1st century AD, Persius had superstitious female relatives concoct a charm with the "infamous finger" (digitus infamis) and "purifying spit";2425 while in the Satyricon, an old woman uses dust, spit and her middle finger to mark the forehead before casting a spell.26 The poet Martial has a character in good health extend "the indecent one" toward three doctors.327 In another epigram, Martial wrote: "Laugh loud, Sextillus, at whoever calls you a cinaedus and extend your middle finger."2829 Juvenal, through synecdoche, has the "middle nail" cocked at threatening Fortuna.30 The indecent finger features again in a mocking context in the Priapeia, a collection of poems relating to the phallic god Priapus.4 In Late Antiquity, the term "shameless finger" is explained in the Etymologiae of Isidore of Seville with reference to its frequent use when accusing someone of a "shameful action".31

Medieval era

The finger is similar to a gesture made by knights in the Middle Ages, in which they raised their lances upright towards each other.2

Baseball pitcher Old Hoss Radbourn pictured giving the finger to cameraman, 1886. (Back row, far left). First known photograph of the gesture.32

United States

Linguist Jesse Sheidlower traces the gesture's development in the United States to the 1890s.2 According to anthropologist Desmond Morris, the gesture probably came to the United States via Italian immigrants.3 The first documented appearance of the finger in the United States was in 1886 when Old Hoss Radbourn, a baseball pitcher for the Boston Beaneaters, was photographed giving it to a member of the rival New York Giants.3

Cultural impact

Politics and military incidents

The gesture has been involved in notable political events. During the USS Pueblo incident, the captured American crewmembers often discreetly gave the finger in staged photo ops, thus ruining the North Koreans' propaganda efforts. The North Koreans, ignorant of what the gesture meant, were at first told by the prisoners that it was a "Hawaiian Good Luck Sign", similar to "hang loose". When the guards finally figured things out, the crewmembers were subjected to more severe punishment.33 Abbie Hoffman used the gesture at the 1968 Democratic National Convention.2 Ronald Reagan, while serving as the Governor of California, gave the middle finger to counterculture protestors in Berkeley, California.2 Nelson Rockefeller, then the Vice President of the United States, directed the gesture to hecklers at a 1976 campaign stop near Binghamton, New York, leading it to be called the "Rockefeller Gesture".2 Pierre Trudeau, then the Prime Minister of Canada, gave the finger to protesters in Salmon Arm, British Columbia. earning the incident the nickname the Salmon Arm Salute.34 Former president George W. Bush gave the finger to the camera at an Austin production facility during his term as governor of Texas, saying it was "just a one-finger victory salute."35 Anthony Weiner gave the finger to reporters after leaving his election headquarters the night he lost the 2013 primary election for Mayor of New York City.36

During World War II, the 91st Bombardment Group of the United States Army Air Forces referred to the gesture as the "rigid digit" salute. It was used in a more jocular manner, to suggest an airman had committed an error or infraction; the term was a reference to British slang terms for inattentiveness (i.e. "pull your finger out (of your bum)").37 The "Order of the Rigid Digit" continued after the war as a series of awards presented by the veteran's association of the 91st, marked by wooden statuettes of a hand giving the single finger gesture.38 In 2005 during the War in Iraq, Master Sergeant Michael Burghardt gained prominence when the Omaha World-Herald published a photo of Burghardt making the gesture towards Iraqi insurgents he believed to be watching after an improvised explosive device failed to kill him.

The middle finger has been involved in judicial hearings. An Appellate Court in Hartford, Connecticut ruled in 1976 that gesturing with the middle finger was offensive, but not obscene, after a police officer charged a 16-year-old with making an obscene gesture when the student gave the officer the middle finger.39 The case was appealed to the Connecticut Supreme Court,40 which upheld the decision.41 In March 2006, a federal lawsuit was filed regarding the free speech issue.42

Giving the finger has resulted in negative consequences. A Malaysian man was bludgeoned to death after giving the finger to a motorist following a car chase.43 A Pakistani man was deported by the United Arab Emirates for the gesture, which violates indecency codes.44

People have given the finger as a method of political protest. At a concert, Ricky Martin gave a picture of George W. Bush the finger to protest the War in Iraq.45 Serbian protesters gave the finger to the Russian embassy regarding their support of Slobodan Milošević.46 Artist Ai Weiwei has used the finger in photographs and sculptures as a political statement.47 As a political message to the Czech President, Czech artist David Cerny floated an outsize, purple statue of a hand on the River Vltava in Prague; its middle finger extended towards Prague Castle, the Presidential seat.48

In popular culture

A group of homeless children from Keningauin, in Borneo, giving the finger while sniffing glue from a plastic bag.
A message on the Vltava river under Prague Castle from the Czech sculptor David Černý to the left-wing president Miloš Zeman before the precipitated 2013 parliament election in the Czech Republic.

The use of the middle finger has become pervasive in popular culture. The band Cobra Starship released a song called "Middle Finger", and released a music video that showed people giving the finger.49 Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan installed a marble statue of a middle finger measuring 11 metres (36 ft), located directly in front of the Milan Stock Exchange.50 A now-famous photograph of Johnny Cash shows him giving the middle finger to a photographer during a 1969 concert at San Quentin State Prison, released as At San Quentin.51 However, the photo remained fairly obscure until 1998, when producer Rick Rubin made it the centerpiece of an ad in Billboard criticizing country radio for not giving airplay to Cash's Grammy-winning album Unchained.52 Cameron Diaz made the gesture during a photo shoot for Esquire.53 Harold Lloyd shot the finger to his own reflection in a Coney Island funhouse after getting paint on his suit in Speedy, his final silent feature, from 1928.54

Athletes, including Stefan Effenberg, Ron Artest, Luis Suárez, Juan Pablo Montoya, Iván Rodríguez, Danny Graves, Jack McDowell, Natasha Zvereva, Josh Smith, and Bryan Cox have been suspended or fined for making the gesture.353555657 José Paniagua was released by the Chicago White Sox after giving the middle finger to an umpire; he hasn't played in the majors since.55 Baseball executive Chub Feeney once resigned after giving the finger to fans on Fan Appreciation Night.5558 Bud Adams, owner of the National Football League's Tennessee Titans, was fined US$250,000 for giving both middle fingers to the fans of the Buffalo Bills during a game.5960

Many musical artists, including Madonna, Lady Gaga, Eminem, Justin Bieber, Katy Perry, and Adele have publicly made the gesture.6162 Britney Spears gave the gesture towards members of the paparazzi, but had to apologize when fans interpreted the gesture as directed at them.3 M.I.A. gave the gesture during the Super Bowl XLVI Halftime Show.363 The National Football League, NBC, and M.I.A. apologized.364 The CD itself for Kid Rock's album Devil Without a Cause is a picture of his raised middle finger.

In automobile driving culture, giving the finger to a fellow motorist communicates displeasure at another person's reckless driving habits and/or their disregard for common courtesy.

The media sometimes refers to the gesture as being mistaken for an indication of "we're number one", typically indicated with a raised index finger.586566 Ira Robbins, a law professor, believes the finger is no longer an obscene gesture.3 Psychologist David Walsh, founder of the National Institute on Media and the Family, sees the growing acceptance of the middle finger as a sign of the growth of a "culture of disrespect".53

Google Street View's picture of the area around the Wisconsin Governor's Mansion, taken in 2011, shows a jogger giving the finger in the direction of the mansion.67

Similar gestures

In the United Kingdom, Ireland, Australia, and New Zealand, the V sign, when given with back of the hand towards the recipient, serves a similar purpose. George H. W. Bush, President of the United States, accidentally made the gesture while on a diplomatic trip to Australia,68 however no offence was taken by the Australian media given the fact that the V sign as an insult is largely unknown among recent generations of Australianscitation needed, with the middle finger gesture having superseded it. In countries where Spanish, Portuguese, or French are spoken, and especially on the Iberian peninsula and in Latin America, a gesture called the bras d'honneur involving raising a fist and slapping the biceps on the same arm as the fist used, sometimes called the Iberian slap or Iberian finger, is equivalent to the finger. Italy, Poland, and countries under the influence of Russian culture, such as Russia, Belarus, and the Ukraine, also see the bras d'honneur as equivalent to the finger, but the majority of modern young men in these countries use the finger as an insult, which is associated with the Western culture.3

In former Persia, mainly Iran and Iraq, a gesture involving exposing only the thumb in a vertical orientation – a thumbs up – is used in lieu of the finger to express roughly the same sentiment.69 In many Latin American countries, the "A-ok" gesture, where the index finger and thumb form a closed circle, is offensive. Richard Nixon made this gesture while in a Latin American country in the 1950s.69

In some African and Caribbean countries, a similarly obscene gesture is extending all five digits with the palm facing forward, meaning "you have five fathers", thus calling someone a bastard.69 This is similar to a gesture known in Greece as the Moutza, where the five fingers are spread wide and the palm is pushed towards the recipient.70 More commonly in Turkish or Russian-influenced areas, the fig sign (also known as nah or shish) serves as the equivalent to the finger. The gesture is typically made with the hand and fingers curled and the thumb thrust between the middle and index fingers. This gesture is also used similarly in Indonesia, Turkey and China.71 In most Arabic speaking countries, doing the opposite as the western style of the finger, so all fingers open with the middle finger down flat, not curled, and the palm is facing up.

See also

References

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Further reading

External links








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