From Ancient Greece to anal penetration, the one-finger salute has a long, phallic history.
Welcome to the Glad You Asked series, a shame-free zone where we tackle topics you’re too embarrassed to ask even your BFF about. Don’t worry, we gotchu.
Its uses are many. You can express dissatisfaction to the driver in the next lane, take down your sibling behind Mom’s back, or insult the opposing team’s fans from afar. I’m talkin’ about the bird, people. The middle finger. Our way of telling strangers we just don’t like ’em.
Question is: Where’d it come from? Whence does it derive its power? What goodly soul invented this most efficient, cutting gesture?
Turns out, the one-finger salute has been around for some time. A bunch of folks will tell you it’s got roots in the Hundred Years’ War when French soldiers threatened to cut off the fingers of British POWs at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415 to render the Brits’ bow hands useless. As the tide of the battle turned, the victorious Englishmen raised their fingers to show France that they could still “pluck yew.”
Unfortunately this story is utter nonsense.
The real reason for the middle finger is that it looks like a penis. A BBC article from a few years ago quotes anthropologist Desmond Morris:
“It’s one of the most ancient insult gestures known. The middle finger is the penis and the curled fingers on either side are the testicles. By doing it, you are offering someone a phallic gesture. It is saying, ‘this is a phallus’ that you’re offering to people, which is a very primeval display.”
Elizabeth King, writing for Complex last year, agrees. “In ancient Rome, giving the finger was a physical threat,” she says. “The Latin phrase for the middle finger digitus impudicus literally means “unchaste finger,” and the gesture was a symbol for anally penetrating men.”
She also references a famous anecdote about the Greek biographer Diogenes, who called out the politician Demosthenes by raising a middle finger and shouting “There goes the demagogue of Athens!”
Another early example of the bird being used in a phallic context is “The Clouds,” a 2,500-year-old play by the Greek writer Aristophanes. At one point during the play, the protagonist Strepsiades?—?a citizen of Athens whose son’s gambling habit has driven him into debt?—?flips Socrates the bird during an argument. “When I was a lad, a digit meant this!” Strepsiades tells the philosopher before extending his middle finger.
Aristophanes almost certainly meant for the gesture to be interpreted as a penis reference. Socrates apparently gets it. “You’re just a crude buffoon,” he replies.
So, there you have it. No great mystery: we flick people off because our middle fingers resemble dicks.