A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

What's the origin of "the finger"?

September 4, 1998

Dear Cecil:

Can you confirm the following? It sounds rather fishy to me.

[Adam attaches the following memo, which has been floating around the Internet for some time.]

Subject: Truth About the Finger

In the film Titanic the character Rose is shown giving the finger to Jack, another character. Many people who have seen the film question whether "giving the finger" was done around the time of the Titanic disaster, or was it a more recent gesture invented by some defiant seventh-grader. According to research, here's the true story:

Before the Battle of Agincourt in 1415, the French, anticipating victory over the English, proposed to cut off the middle finger of all captured English soldiers. Without the middle finger it would be impossible to draw the renowned English longbow and therefore [soldiers would] 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." Much to the bewilderment of the French, the English won a major upset and began mocking the French by waving their middle fingers at the defeated French, saying, "See, we can still pluck yew!"

Over the years some "folk etymologies" have grown up around this symbolic gesture. Since "pluck yew" is rather difficult to say, like "pheasant mother plucker," which is who you had to go to for the feathers used on the arrows for the longbow, the difficult consonant cluster at the beginning has gradually changed to a labiodental fricative "f," and thus the words often used in conjunction with the one-finger salute are mistakenly thought to have something to do with an intimate encounter. It is also because of the pheasant feathers on the arrows that the gesture is known as "giving the bird."

And yew all thought yew knew everything!

Dear Adam:

Uh huh.

Now for the facts. The "one-finger salute," or at any rate sexual gestures involving the middle finger, are thousands of years old. In Gestures: Their Origins and Distribution, Desmond Morris and colleagues note that the digitus infamis or digitus impudicus (infamous or indecent finger) is mentioned several times in the literature of ancient Rome. Turning to our vast classical library, we quickly turn up three references. Two are 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 the other 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." Morris also claims that the mad emperor Caligula, as an insult, would extend his middle finger for supplicants to kiss.

It's not known whether one displayed the digitus infamis in the same manner that we (well, you) flip the bird today. In another of his books Morris describes a variety of sexual insults involving the middle finger, such as the "middle-finger down prod," the "middle-finger erect," etc., all of which are different from the classic middle-finger jerk. But let's not quibble. The point is, the middle-finger/phallus equation goes back way before the Titanic, the Battle of Agincourt, or probably even that time Sextillus cut off Pylades with his chariot. And I ain't kidding yew.

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