Flipping Off the World: One Finger at a Time

The universal gesture of mankind

There are many variations to it, and there are many names for it: “flipping the bird, “giving the finger,” “the highway salute,” “the New York hello,” “the double barrel salute,” “the one-finger victory salute,” just to name a few.

Call it what you will; we’ve all done it, and we’ve all had it done to us. Most of us assume that the act of giving someone the finger is a contemporary gesture. In reality, this non-verbal method of telling people to “stick it where the sun don’t shine” can be traced back to ancient Rome and the Greco-Roman Empire.

So who flipped off whom first?

Perhaps my favorite explanation of the origin of “the finger” dates to the Battle of Agincourt in 1415, when French soldiers, anticipating victory over the English, proposed cutting off the middle fingers of all English prisoners. Without their middle fingers, the story goes, it would be impossible for them to draw their renowned English longbows and would therefore be incapable of fighting in the future.

This famous weapon was made of the native English Yew tree, and the act of drawing the longbow was known as “plucking the yew,” or “pluck yew.” Much to the bewilderment of the French, the English achieved a major victory and began mocking their defeated rivals by wagging their middle fingers and proclaiming: “See, we can still pluck yew! PLUCK YEW!” I’m sure you can extrapolate from here.

While it sounds like the perfect beginning for our favorite obscene gesture, allusions to the middle finger go back as far as early Mediterranean cultures and variations of it can be tracked across every civilization with a written history.

It is identified as the digitus impudicus (impudent finger) in Ancient Roman writings, while reference to the use of the middle finger is also found in ancient Greek comedy as a means of insulting another person. The Emperor Caligula insulted people by making them kiss his middle finger instead of his hand. Augustus Caesar expelled entertainers from his presence with an obscene wave of his middle finger.

The earliest recorded mention of the finger is in the play “The Clouds,” written by the Greek dramatist, Aristophanes in 423 B.C. Even then, the use of the middle finger had a clear, obscene connotation. Most experts doubt that the ancient Greeks were the original flippers of the bird however. More likely, bird flippage goes all the way back into prehistory. Just imagine it for a moment: Cave guys flipping off other cave guys for ogling their cave babes!

The extension of the middle finger and the long arm of the law

So where does the law come down on flipping the bird? In most jurisdictions, while it’s not technically illegal to give someone the finger, flipping off the wrong cop at the wrong time can cost you some money, land you in jail, or both. If you do end up in the pokey, it will likely be based on a charge of disorderly conduct or creating a public nuisance.

So, you may get off with as little as a $20 fine, or you may spend up to a year in jail, depending on extenuating circumstances. Either way, think twice before you honor that police officer with the single finger salute. (Although, if I thought I could do it and get away with the $20 fine, I’d probably go for it too.)

Completely logical reasons for flipping someone off

Legal, shmegal. Regardless of potential jail time or fines, there are instances when it’s not only appropriate to flip someone off, it’s damn necessary. Particularly when you’re too out of your mind to say anything intelligent, or you’ve concluded that the only other viable alternative is to break the enemy’s face:

  • When someone cuts you off in traffic. Use both hands if you even suspect the idiot did it on purpose. If you’re positive that he intentionally cut you off, roll down the window and scream “F**k You” as loud as you can while extending both arms out the window to make sure the bastard sees them.
  • In response to a bad call by a referee or umpire. In most cases, you should also scream obscenities at the offending official at the top of your lungs. The larger and more boisterous the crowd, the louder you must scream. If the official reacts by glaring at you like he wants you dead, you’ve scored.
  • During a meeting when someone interrupts you. While this is completely eligible offense, proper discretion is advised: If you wear glasses, pretend to adjust them on the bridge of your nose with your middle finger. It’s critical to make a fist with your other fingers so the obnoxious jackass will have no doubt about what just happened. This method is considered to be very impressive if at least one other person sees you do it. The more, the better. This option is also very appropriate in church, bookstores, educational settings, and all other quiet places.
  • When you’re being chased by someone you’ve just insulted.While flipping off the occupant(s) of the other car can be extremely satisfying, there are multiple factors to consider before you pull the trigger:
    • Whether or not you’re driving the faster car
    • The number of bad guys in the other vehicle
    • Regardless of what a bad ass you are, they could be packing heat
    • In the event that the enemy catches you, your degree of confidence that you can beat his ass. The chance of this outcome decreases proportionately with the increase in the number of equally pissed-off occupants in the other car.
  • When you’re losing an argument with your significant other. This is without doubt the most common reason of all for flipping someone off, but you’ll need a few basic skills to achieve the desired result:
    • It’s much more effective if you simultaneously scream “F**k You” at the top of your lungs.
    • The closer you get your face to that of your beloved, the more impact you’ll have. If you can get close enough so the spit flying from your mouth lands on your honey’s face, it’s a home run. (that you’ll replay over and over in your mind as you’re trying to sleep on the couch.)
    • Don’t flip your sweetie off too often though; it will lose its impact during those times when you really need a victory.

Next time you give someone the finger – get creative!

While most of us have perfected our own personal styles when it comes to giving someone the finger, here are a few of the more creative methods you can use to impress bad drivers, significant others, irritating strangers, and anyone else who deserves to be flipped off.

The Snake Charmer: Make a fist with your left hand and hold it, knuckles out, in front of your chest. Grab your Punji flute in your right hand and begin to play traditional Indian snake charming music. Rock the Punji side-to-side as you play. Slowly raise the middle finger of your left hand, rocking it side- to-side as well, until it is fully extended.

Bad Reception: Make a fist with your right hand and hold it to your right ear. Act as if you are in the middle of a phone call. Pretend you’re experiencing weak signal strength, perhaps by saying “What? What? I can’t hear you,” for maximum effect. With your left hand, grab the tip of the middle finger on your right hand and raise it to its full extension. With your middle finger fully extended in your adversary’s face, say: “It’s for you.”

The Usual Suspects: Make a fist with your hand and hold it about a foot in front of your face. Raise your pinky, look at if for a second, shake your head and say, “No, it’s not that guy.” Next, raise your ring finger and repeat the same words. Do the same with your middle finger. Now raise your index finger and exclaim, “Wait, go back to that last guy!” Lower your index finger and raise your middle finger again, saying, “That’s the guy; I’d recognize ‘F**k You’ anywhere!”

The Divorce: Extend the index and middle fingers of your right hand and spread them apart. Make your index finger say, “I love you.” Your middle should reply, “I love you too.” At this point bring your two fingers together so they are snuggly fitted against each other. Now say, “Aww, how sweet.” But there’s trouble in paradise: Slowly separate the fingers as you ad lib a fight between them until they have returned to their starting positions. Finally, make your index finger say, “I’m leaving you,” to which the middle finger replies angrily: I’m leaving you and I’m never coming back!” Lower your index finger, leaving your middle finger extended. Say, “F**k you,” as if calling after the index finger. Then look into the eyes of your victim and say, “F**k You Too!”

The Curl: Lower both arms to the sides of your body and extend your middle fingers. Slowly, and with a lot of feigned effort, raise both arms as if curling a barbell. For added effect, shout out phrases such as, “Get Jacked!” or “That’s it, that’s it, you’re almost there!”

Flipping the bird around the world

For all you world travelers, I suggest you familiarize yourself with bird-flipping customs around the globe. In the event you find yourself in an emotionally charged situation in a foreign land, you’ll want to be sure to use the culturally-proper gesture. This will not only ensure that you achieve the desired effect; you’ll also impress your host(s) by demonstrating your respect for their respective culture(s).

While flipping someone off is a universally recognized symbol of disrespect as far away as India, Pakistan and other South Asian nations, other cultures have proudly developed their own variations.

For instance, the two-finger method, delivered with the back of the hand facing the subject of the insult, is practiced in the United Kingdom, Ireland, and New Zealand. The Russian equivalent is the bent elbow, which is also used in Poland, Italy and the Ukraine.

In certain African countries and the Caribbean, flashing all five fingers at someone with the palm facing the recipient is analogous to calling the person a bastard child with five fathers. Damn.

A similar gesture – with fingers spread widely – is the “moutza,”which is Greece’s contribution to the world of obscene hand gestures.

And of course my hands-down favorite is China, where the pinky finger is used instead of the middle one. (Hmm, wonder why that is?)

So there you have it. If you’ve read this far, you now know more about the middle finger than you ever thought you would, huh? The next time that rude idiot takes your parking spot, or your loved one irritates the living hell out of you, just remember as you’re firing up the bird; the simple gesture you’re about to make has a very rich history my friend. Respect it.

We may have thrown Latin onto the dustbin of history, but the middle finger is more popular today than ever. Aristophanes would be proud indeed.


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