In Western culture, "the finger" or the middle finger (as in giving someone the (middle) finger or the bird or flipping someone off) is an obscene hand gesture. The gesture communicates moderate to extreme contempt, and is roughly equivalent in meaning to "fuck me", "fuck you", "shove it up your ass/arse", "up yours" or "go fuck yourself". It is performed by showing the back of a hand that has only the middle finger extended upwards, though in some locales, the thumb is extended. Extending the finger is considered a symbol of contempt in several cultures, especially in the Western World. Many cultures use similar gestures to display their disrespect, although others use it to express pointing without intentional disrespect. The gesture is usually used to express contempt but can also be used humorously or playfully.
The gesture dates back to ancient Greece and it was also used in ancient Rome. Historically, it represented the phallus. In the early 1800s, it gained increasing recognition as a sign of disrespect and was used by music artists (notably more common among actors, celebrities, athletes and politicians; most still view the gesture as obscene). The index finger and ring finger besides the middle finger in more contemporary periods has been likened to represent the testes.
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. It also represented the phallus, with the fingers next to the middle finger representing testicles; from its close association, the gesture may have assumed apotropaic potency. 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.
In Greek the gesture was known as the katapygon (κατάπυγον, from kata – κατά, "downwards" and pugē – πυγή, "rump, buttocks"). 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" or katapygaina to a female. In Aristophanes's comedy The Clouds (423 BC), 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 daktylos, 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 text). Socrates called one who made the gesture "boorish and stupid". The gesture recurs as a form of mockery in Peace, alongside farting in someone's face; the usage is later explained in the Suda and included in the Adagia of Erasmus. The verb "to play the Siphnian" appears in a fragment of Aristophanes and has a similar meaning; the usage is once again explained in the Suda, where it is said to mean "to touch the anus with a finger". Diogenes Laërtius records how the Cynic philosopher Diogenes of Sinope directed the gesture at the orator Demosthenes in 4th-century BC Athens. In the Discourses of Epictetus, Diogenes's target is instead one of the sophists.
In Latin, the middle finger was the digitus impudicus, meaning the "shameless, indecent or offensive finger". In the 1st century AD, Persius had superstitious female relatives concoct a charm with the "infamous finger" (digitus infamis) and "purifying spit"; while in the Satyricon, an old woman uses dust, spit and her middle finger to mark the forehead before casting a spell. The poet Martial has a character in good health extend "the indecent one" toward three doctors. In another epigram, Martial wrote: "Laugh loud, Sextillus, at whoever calls you a cinaedus and extend your middle finger." Juvenal, through synecdoche, has the "middle nail" cocked at threatening Fortuna. The indecent finger features again in a mocking context in the Priapeia, a collection of poems relating to the phallic god Priapus. 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".
Linguist Jesse Sheidlower traces the gesture's development in the United States to the 1890s. According to anthropologist Desmond Morris, the gesture probably came to the United States via Italian immigrants. 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 their rival the New York Giants. In the film Speedy (1928), Harold Lloyd's character gives himself the finger into a distorting mirror at Luna Park, about 25 minutes into the film.
Politics and military incidents
The gesture has been involved in notable political events. During the USS Pueblo incident, in which an American ship was captured by North Korea, the captured American crewmembers often discreetly gave the finger in staged photo ops, thus ruining the North Koreans' efforts at propaganda. 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 the shaka. When the guards finally figured things out, the crewmembers were subjected to extremely severe beatings. Abbie Hoffman used the gesture at the 1968 Democratic National Convention. Ronald Reagan, while serving as the Governor of California, gave the middle finger to counterculture protestors in Berkeley, California. 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". 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". The gesture itself has also been nicknamed the "Trudeau salute". 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." 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. During the campaign for the 2013 German federal election, the leading candidate of the Social Democratic Party of Germany, Peer Steinbrück controversially gave the finger in a photo interview with Süddeutsche Zeitung's Magazin supplement.
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)"). 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. In 2005 during the war in Iraq, Gunnery 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. The case was appealed to the Connecticut Supreme Court, which upheld the decision. In March 2006, a federal lawsuit was filed regarding the free speech issue.
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. A Pakistani man was deported by the United Arab Emirates for the gesture, which violates indecency codes.
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. Serbian protesters gave the finger to the Russian embassy regarding their support of Slobodan Milošević. Artist Ai Weiwei has used the finger in photographs and sculptures as a political statement. As a political message to the Czech President Miloš Zeman, Czech artist David Černý floated an outsize, purple statue of a hand on the River Vltava in Prague; its middle finger extended towards Prague Castle, the Presidential seat.
In 2017, while bicycling, Juli Briskman gave the finger to the motorcade of Donald Trump as it drove past her, and a photograph that went viral forced her to resign from her job. She was elected to the board of supervisors for Loudoun County, Virginia, in the 2019 Virginia elections.
In popular culture
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. 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. 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. 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. Cameron Diaz made the gesture during a photo shoot for Esquire. 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.
Athletes, including Stefan Effenberg, Ron Artest, Luis Suárez, Juan Pablo Montoya, Iván Rodríguez, Danny Graves, Jack McDowell, Natasha Zvereva, Josh Smith, Bryan Cox, and Johnny Manziel have been suspended or fined for making the gesture. 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. Baseball executive Chub Feeney once resigned after giving the finger to fans on Fan Appreciation Night. 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. Professional wrestler Stone Cold Steve Austin is also famous for flashing one or both middle fingers as part of his gimmick. Hockey star Jaromír Jágr made the gesture several times following goals in the early 1990s.
The NME Awards, an annual music awards show in the UK, uses an extended middle finger design in the trophy handed out to the winners. Many musical artists, including Madonna, Lady Gaga, Eminem, Ariana Grande, Katy Perry, and Adele have publicly made the gesture. Britney Spears and Iggy Azalea have given the gesture towards members of the paparazzi, but had to apologize when fans interpreted the gesture as directed at them. M.I.A. gave the gesture during the Super Bowl XLVI Halftime Show. The National Football League, NBC, and M.I.A. apologized. The CD itself for Kid Rock's album Devil Without a Cause is a picture of his raised middle finger. On the cover of Moby Grape's first album, Moby Grape, band member Don Stevenson was caught flipping the bird at the camera. The finger was airbrushed out of subsequent releases of the album.
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. Sometimes, though, the "mistake" is actually an intentional euphemism meant to indirectly convey the gesture in a medium where a direct description would be inappropriate. For example, Don Meredith is famously noted in a 1972 Monday Night Football game describing the Finger of a dejected Houston Oilers fan as, "He thinks they're number one in the nation." Ira Robbins, a law professor, believes the finger is no longer an obscene gesture. 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".
Google Street View's picture of the area around the Wisconsin Governor's Mansion, taken in 2011 during the tenure of Scott Walker, shows a jogger giving the finger in the direction of the mansion.
In the United Kingdom, Ireland, Australia and New Zealand, the V sign, "two-fingered salute" or "the fingers", when given with back of the hand towards the recipient, serves a similar purpose. According to a Royal Shakespeare Company synopsis of the play Henry V, a "two-fingered salute" appeared in the Macclesfield Psalter of c. 1330 (in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge), "being made by a glove in the psalter's marginalia”. George H. W. Bush, former President of the United States, accidentally made the gesture while on a diplomatic trip to Australia.
In countries where Spanish, Portuguese or French are spoken, and especially in Spain, Portugal, Brazil and France, the gesture involving raising a fist and slapping the biceps on the same arm as the fist used, sometimes called the bras d'honneur (French), corte de mangas (Spanish) or Iberian slap, is equivalent to the finger.
Italy, Poland and countries under the influence of Russian culture, such as Russia, Belarus and Ukraine, also see it as equivalent to the finger, but the majority of young people in these countries use the finger as an insult, which is associated with the Western culture.
In Islamic countries and cultures, 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. A similarly obscene gesture is extending all five digits with the palm facing forward, meaning "you have five fathers", thus calling someone a bastard. 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. More commonly in Turkish or Slavic regions, the fig sign (also known as nah or shish) serves as the equivalent to the finger, meaning "you won't get it" or "in your dreams". 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.
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