Sunday, December 11, 2011

Flipping Out: The Origin of Peace and the Bird

I am a new day rising
I'm a brand new sky
To hang the stars upon tonight
I am a little divided
Do I stay or run away
And leave it all behind?
--Times Like These, Foo Fighters

I would like to thank L.G. Smith for the inspiration for this week’s Sunday Mythbusters.  Last week, I talked about the nebulous origins of the peace sign.  L.G. asked why two fingers raised in a “V” with palm out (little Bunny Foo-foo for those of you with children) is recognized as a modern gesture of peace.

31 years gone.
It may surprise you to know that this harmonious gesture is just a turn of the hand from obscenity.  When the knuckles are out, the “V” sign takes on an entirely different--and vulgar--meaning.  According to urban legend, the knuckles out “V” sign is derived from a gesture made by English armies during the Hundred Years’ War in 1415.  The story claims the French would cut off the arrow shooting fingers of captured English archers.  Thus, the gesture became a sign of defiance--a sort of “come and get me, Frenchie.”

Liam Gallagher of Oasis fame is a repeat offender. effectively busts this myth, citing the lack of any written evidence that the practice of mutilating English bowmen ever occurred.
No exact origin for the sign (forward or backward) has ever been cited.  Some claim the two fingers represent the feminine chalice and flashing them can either be a blessing--or a crude way to encourage copulation with the fairer sex.
The gesture got a chance to turn it around during WWII when the BBC, led by a Belgian French-speaking director, used the V as a call to nations joining together against Germany.  V stood for victoire--victory--in French and vrijheid--freedom--in Dutch.  Winston Churchill eventually put his stamp of approval on the “V for Victory” campaign and became an avid user of the sign--in its appropriate, palm out formulation. 

In the 1960s, the sign was adopted by the hippie counterculture.  Many believe that while presidents were using it to proclaim victory, the protestors were using it to represent freedom.

Occasionally the knuckles-out vs. knuckles-in orientation confuses people.  In the UK, the vulgar “V” sign is occasionally called a “Harvey” after Harvey Smith, a British equestrian champion.  Smith was disciplined in 1971 after he gave the sign to judges following a near perfect performance.  He later claimed it was a Freudian mixup of the obscene gesture and the virtuous one.  Former president George H. W. Bush committed a similar faux pax when touring in Australia.  Upon meeting with a group protesting American farm subsidies, he tried to show a peace sign.  Unfortunately, he did it knuckles out and insulted the group instead with his two fingers.

Could have been worse.  He could have used air quotes.  Now that’s offensive.
Since the discussion of the peace sign is strangely intertwined with gestures of obscenity (I'll try not to dwell on the potential meanings of that), I feel compelled to discuss the holy grail of insults.  The finger of all fingers.  Those of you not keen on the middle digit salute may want to stop here.  

Flipping the bird dates back over 2500 years.  The first written record was documented by Aristophanes, who made a crude joke using the middle finger as a phallic symbol in his play, The Clouds.

Socrates: Polite society will accept you if you can discriminate, say, between the martial anapest and common dactylic — sometimes vulgarly called “finger rhythm.”
Strepsiades: Finger-rhythm? I know that.
Socrates: Define it then.
Strepsiades [Extending his middle finger]: Why, it’s tapping time with this finger. Of course, when I was a boy [grabbing his genitals], I used to make rhythm with this one.
Some believe the association of middle finger with the penis mimics the genital grabbing done by primates to assert authority.  And it's a lot easier to do out the window of a Caprice during rush hour traffic. 
The ancient Romans adopted the middle finger gesture from the Greeks.  The gesture was so popular among Romans that they gave the middle finger a fitting name: the digitus impudicus.  Caligula often would have his subjects kiss his middle finger as an insult.
The Hundred Years’ War urban legend arises again in discussion of the bird.  In this version, showing the middle finger was a way to tell the French that no matter what, the English would continue to “pluck yew”.  Bowmaking 101 tells us that yew was the native wood used to create English bows.  Thus, plucking yew = fighting.  Over the years, etymologic distortions turned a bizarre insult into. . .well, you know.  Some even go as far as to claim “the bird” is a play on the feathers used on arrows.  It's a fun story, but it turns out it was created sometime during the 1980s.  The word, the word of the bird, has its etymology based in Germanic languages and was derived from terms for breeding and copulation.  So no pluck for yew.
The bird disappeared during the Dark Ages, possibly due to the influence of the Church. did an expose on the finger, linking the origins of its use to finger pointing no-nos in the Bible.  God does not appreciate a finger pointed in scorn according to Isaiah and Proverbs.  

In 1644, John Bulwer compiled 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." 
The first recorded American appearance of the finger was in 1886 when baseball pitcher Charles “Old Hoss” Radbourn of the Boston Beaneaters gave the third finger salute in the team picture.

Hard to see, but there.  
Americans took it as a symbol of rebellion and humor.  We’ve been flipping the bird in portraits ever since.  It's become a ubiquitous part of our lexicon and culture, just ask Holden Caulfield.  Even Vice President Nelson Rockefeller expressed himself to a group of hecklers using his fool’s finger during a campaign rally in 1976.

Nelson Rockefeller shows his ability to embrace youth culture.
Ira Robbins, a law professor from Washington D.C., wrote a law review article called Digitus Impudicus: The Middle Finger and the Law in 2007.  In it he details the historical and legal implications of flipping the finger.  The gesture is generally covered under the principles of free speech.  When contested, there have been no cases (assuming no other criminal behavior) successfully prosecuted about the use of the finger alone representing a criminal act.
In celebration of that truly American form of expression, I give you a few of my favorite birds.
Went up against a Russian MiG with just a finger.

Right turn, Clyde.

Galileo's middle finger is now preserved in an Italian museum after it was removed post mortem by a souvenir seeker.
No one flips the bird like Jean Luc Picard. 

Have a great weekend!  And I wish Bunny Foo-foo to you all.


  1. What an interesting post, Julie! I had no idea. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Wow! As a historian I love your posts, and you're so witty. When I grow up I want to be you.

  3. I had no idea about any of this. I'll admit that, in my younger days, two fingers was a quick easy way of expressing my displeasure. Those days are gone now, but my girls often use the rather more acceptable 'peace' version :-)

  4. Brilliant! I myself am a lover of the two fingered knuckles out British salute and use it quite regularly when driving through the city! Great post Julie.

  5. I generally don't curse--even less with hand gestures, but from now on in mixed company, I'll remember 'pluck yew'. LOL.

  6. I never knew the story of the bird ran so deep! Next time I extend my finger, I will have this post in the back of my mind while doing so!

  7. ROFL, that was great, Julie. That last one had me laughing loud enough to draw the Hubs attention, so I had to show him. =o)

    And a happy Bunny Foo-Foo to you, too. =o)

  8. Ha! That was great. I'm an ambidextrous user of the digitus impudicus, by the way. My talents run deep. Especially when someone cuts me off in traffic. :P

  9. Now this was a fun post to read! Hey, who taught that oragutan to flip people off? Too funny.

  10. Fascinating stuff! And nothing beats that picture of Jean Luc flipping the bird.

  11. So many facts in there that I never knew I needed to know!

  12. Great writing. Makes me wish I liked romance, so I could read longer stuff by you! Sigh.

  13. Funny how things change over time. I'd never be offended if someone showed me their knuckles. And the bird, well, I could just say, "Thank you very much, I think I will." :) Freud had issues, that's why I gave up on psychology...the whole penis envy thing...get real.

  14. I'm educated once again! Just how much time do you devote researching all that stuff? :)

  15. OMG, too funny. I had no idea there was so much history behind the middle finger!

  16. Entertaining and interesting!
    And I am an air quote abuser...quote I can't help it! unquote

  17. Love that Foo Fighters song, too!!

  18. Wow, so much good stuff! Nelson really knew how to put himself into it, didn't he? And you've gotta love H.W.'s little mistakes. oops. My favorite, though, is knowing Aristophanes was the prankster who created flipping the bird! Thanks.

  19. You know, I'm thinking I don't need to pay for an education. I'll just come here and learn for free instead! lol

    I'd never heard about the peace sign being obscene is the knuckles were placed out. I've seen people do that all the time and never knew they were being vulgar towards me. lol

  20. Laura--thanks for stopping by!

    Christine--if you do grow up to be me, avoid that stage where you dated men with mullets and wore fluorescents.

    Sarah--I was a big fan of the bird in my wilder youth. Now I'm far more peaceful, too.

    Yonks--The British always make things that are vulgar seem so chipper and lovely. I can totally see you giving the V with a smile.

    Maria--There was this great buffalo wings place in NYC called Pluck U. Had I known this story then, I could have really impressed the dudes there that slung chicken.

    Danjor--I always believe you should be fully aware of the meanings of actions. Even if it doesn't stop you from wanting to use them.

    B.E.--I've had those kind of days, where I'm sure mother nature is giving the finger to me.

    L.G.--Ambidextrous, eh? Very impressive V usage, indeed.

    Stephen--I'm sure there's a high paid Hollywood trainer that specializes in hand gestures somewhere

    Alex--I know! He makes the bird look classy.

    Annalisa--The history of obscene finger gestures are crucial elements in a pop culture repertoire

    Charley--That is so nice! I'll keep working on you to change your genre.

    Laila--I have no penis envy, either. Because if I had to deal with something hanging off of me that occasionally had a mind of its own, I'd probably accidentally smash it in a drawer

    DL--You gotta love the internet--a fountain of useless information just waiting to suck away hours of time as you Google things like "etymology of f**k" and "famous middle fingers"

    Lydia--I'll never use it without being cognizant of its loftier beginnings

    Kelly--No, not the air quote! I love Dave Grohl. I would like to just hang out with him and watch bad TV while eating Mentos

    Linda--Those crazy Greeks started it all.

    Sprinkles--Unfortunately, I'm not sure what qualifications this blog would give you that would be marketable. Unless you work on Wall street and need aggressive hand gestures 101.

  21. Great post! Love the clouds picture :)

  22. I have always wondered about the peace sign! Excellent post!

    And I love the Foo Fighters. Saw them in concert in October and they did not disappoint :)

  23. Another hit straight out of the ballpark, or in this case, up into the clouds!

  24. Love the infant pic, almost as much as the mid-19th-century baseball player.

    That cloud pic had to be doctored!!

    Did you know the 'okay' symbol also resides in a vulgar alternate universe?

  25. JULIE ~
    Interesting, as always.

    If I were to select my favorite “bird” it would take me back to August 7, 1972 – the day before my 12th birthday.

    That was the year I was inspired to learn about professional football because the Miami Dolphins were on their way to becoming the first team ever to go undefeated during the regular season and then again in the playoffs and the Super Bowl. They finished the season as world champions at 17-0.

    No team in the National Football League did it before nor has any team done it since.

    A couple of teams have come very close to duplicating the feat, and many believe that the Green Bay Packers will do it this year. (Let’s pray the Saints, or someone, ANYONE, will knock them off sometime between now and the 2012 Super Bowl.)

    My favorite player on that ’72 Dolphin team was running back Larry Csonka (pronounced “Zonk-uh”); I wrote his number, “39”, on nearly every single thing I owned.

    Csonka and fellow running back Jim Kiick (nicknamed “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid”) were featured on the 8/7/1972 Sports Illustrated magazine cover.

    Csonka, who had a huge, likeable personality, despite his ferocious, punishing running style, managed to sneak “the bird” into the magazine photograph. To the best of my knowledge, it is the ONLY time a professional athlete “flipped off” the readers from a Sports Illustrated magazine cover. [Check out Csonka’s right hand as it rests upon his leg.]

    Here’s a LINK to the cover photo.
    And here’s the URL, in case the link doesn’t work:

    I’m not a particularly big fan of “the bird”, but when your favorite player is able to sneak one right on to the cover of one of America’s most popular magazines, ya gotta kind of “give it to him”.

    ~ D-FensDogg
    ‘Loyal American Underground’

  26. Wow. So many obscure facets of society that I know so little about. It's kind of daunting. I do recall Carl Sagan writing about the whole origins of 'eff you' being an insult. But not so much about the hand gestures thing.

  27. Who knew? LOL!
    I learn so much here.

  28. Oh my gosh! What a funny post! Thanks! :)

  29. Just saw an enormous, glittering wreath in the shape of a peace symbol hanging outside someone's stucco wall winking in the Southwestern sun.

    Made me think of you.


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  31. An interesting look into how signs have developed. I'd heard the bird came as a mockery because during war they'd cut off archer's middle fingers since those were important to using a bow and arrow. Seems like I'd heard wrong though and it went back farther than that, though.

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