LYRIC O’ THE DAY:
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.|
Snopes.com 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. Ooze.com 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.