Single Digit Theory
February 7, 2012 2:31 AM   Subscribe


 
Sad that the article ends with a law professor's opinion. Those are usually, as in this case, worth a bucket of cold spit.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 3:32 AM on February 7, 2012


Fascinating. My 10-year-old was just asking me why "the finger" was so offensive. Now I get to tell her about Ancient Greek penises, oh joy.

Also, I'd love to see that Boston Beaneaters photo.
posted by Rock Steady at 3:47 AM on February 7, 2012


And here I thought it was around the same time that the idea gained dominance that 'offensive' is about what other people say and do rather than your own response to it.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 3:50 AM on February 7, 2012


The player was Old Hoss Radbourn.
posted by zamboni at 3:56 AM on February 7, 2012 [2 favorites]


Rock Steady: "I'd love to see that Boston Beaneaters photo"

Old Hoss is in the upper left corner.
posted by idiopath at 3:56 AM on February 7, 2012 [3 favorites]


According to the article over 2000 years ago?
posted by episodic at 4:06 AM on February 7, 2012


"What is risque about it? Maybe the dancing was risque, but the finger? I just don't see it." says Ira Robbins, a law professor at American University in Washington DC, who has studied the gesture's place in criminal jurisprudence.

Um, Ira, were you born yesterday? It means "Fuck you!", in no ambiguous terms. What exactly don 't you understand about the words "Fuck you"?
posted by Goofyy at 4:14 AM on February 7, 2012 [1 favorite]


What exactly don 't you understand about the words "Fuck you"?

Well he seems to mean that the gesture - despite it's sexual origins - carries no sexual connotation. He's right. When someone throws you the bird it's rarely because they literally want to have sex with you.

In other words, it's not at all like showing a breast.
posted by three blind mice at 4:22 AM on February 7, 2012 [2 favorites]


What's green, slimy and smells like Miss Piggy?

Kermit's finger.
posted by netbros at 4:30 AM on February 7, 2012 [2 favorites]


Another old Hoss finger picture.
posted by Ron Thanagar at 4:33 AM on February 7, 2012 [8 favorites]


I must have been sheltered growing up in Dallas, TX. Because I was unaware of what giving someone the "middle finger" meant for the longest while. I was at recess when a few of my friends dared me to stick my middle finger up. I didn't see what the big deal was, so I did. Only to have my asshole friends run to the teacher and tattle about what I had done. I was brought over to my teacher and she asked me if I gave my friends the middle finger. I proceeded to demonstrate and give her the middle finger. She looked slightly amused and proceeded to tell me that this was an unkind gesture and that I should avoid doing it as much as possible. True story.
posted by Fizz at 4:36 AM on February 7, 2012 [7 favorites]


It's almost like they put something mildly controversial in these half time shows on purpose to get people talking about otherwise forgettable performances (nip slip, prince penis, bird flip), but nah that would be too easy of an explanation.
posted by cuban link flooded jesus at 4:36 AM on February 7, 2012 [9 favorites]


When I was a young man, I thought I might want to become an attorney, so I went to work for one to see what it was like. Although I mostly just drove documents around, I did get a chance to attend trials and watch the guy I worked for at trial. This resulted in some fun moments I remember to this day, one of which is germane to this post. My boss had recently received a speeding ticket and as he pulled back onto the road, he lowered his window and gave the officer a salute with his middle finger. Unsurprisingly, this resulted in lights and sirens and an additional ticket for some trumped up charge. As a frequent speeder and one who generally found the police in opposition to his lifestyle, I thought this case might be an amusing one to watch. After the facts were laid out and my boss argued that the finger was a means of self-expression that was protected by the first amendment, the judge ruled that the gesture was rude and offensive but not a criminal act. We gathered our stuff, chatted with a few other attorneys in the building and made our way out of the courtroom. As we walked through the parking lot, we spied the officer also returning to his car. With the most gleeful expression I ever saw, my boss shouted out to him, "Hey, Officer Jones!" When the guy turned to look, my boss gave him an enthusiastic finger with both hands, accompanied with a little happy dance. It was the highlight of my week.
posted by Lame_username at 4:43 AM on February 7, 2012 [53 favorites]


The thief then, his speech gone coarse -
Lifted up his hand and made the bird
Crying, "Fuck you, God! And fuck your horse!"

One serpent, a friend of gentler words,
Wrapped itself around the sinner's head,
As if to say, "Much better you're not heard"

Another winds around his arms, a thread
That, twisting, knots itself in front,
Now his insulting limbs can't spread ...
posted by the quidnunc kid at 4:45 AM on February 7, 2012 [2 favorites]


Since I was young, I have wished that the "two finger salute" was the preferred obscene gesture in the US. Maybe my gross motor skills are underdeveloped, but giving the finger just feels awkward-- it's not easy for me to extend only my middle finger in a way that's obvious to the recipient. And I have a lot of practice because I've been driving in Boston for 15 years. Giving the V feels more natural and satisfying.
posted by Mayor Curley at 4:55 AM on February 7, 2012 [3 favorites]




In the US, neither the two finger salute nor a v-sign is obscene, so I wonder what those Boston drivers think you've been telling them.
posted by DU at 5:01 AM on February 7, 2012


OIC, you've been practicing the middle finger. I need to wake up.
posted by DU at 5:02 AM on February 7, 2012


Funny how simultaneously rapping "I don't give a shh...", suggesting an 'offensive' word that anyone watching knows what is, is absolutely fine.
posted by iotic at 5:04 AM on February 7, 2012 [1 favorite]


Countries that use the Bras d'honneur laugh at that tiny American finger. A side effect of globalization is that one can now combine both for extra oomph.
posted by elgilito at 5:19 AM on February 7, 2012 [1 favorite]


The article seems to skip over the apotropaic function of the phallic symbol in Ancient Greece and Rome. The symbol of the upraised phallus wasn't just dirty - it also acted as a magical protection.

Given the general Wolfgang-Petersen-directing-Thriller vibe of the half-time show, maybe M.I.A was afraid Madonna was going to curse her?
posted by running order squabble fest at 5:30 AM on February 7, 2012 [3 favorites]




I haven't come across a lot of middle fingers in Greece. I'm curious if anyone has any information on the origin of the modern Greek tradition of shoving an open hand in a person's face, God forbid actually touching them; I've never actually seen this done in the US, but I guess the equivalent here is called mushing.
posted by phaedon at 5:46 AM on February 7, 2012


Phaedon: see Moutza
posted by elgilito at 5:50 AM on February 7, 2012


@netbros: ...and smells like pork. You gave away the punchline.
posted by Hubajube at 5:54 AM on February 7, 2012 [7 favorites]


One thing that always kind-of confuses me, coming from a middle-finger-is-naughty nation, is when people use the middle finger as their pointing finger.
posted by Thorzdad at 5:55 AM on February 7, 2012 [1 favorite]


In the US, neither the two finger salute nor a v-sign is obscene, so I wonder what those Boston drivers think you've been telling them.

In a situation where either gesture is called for, getting them to think anything is victory, if unlikely.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 5:56 AM on February 7, 2012 [1 favorite]


A Jimmy Fallon hashtag joke from last year? #worstthingIeverdid

"Taught my five year old nephew that "the finger" was sign language for hello"
posted by timsteil at 5:56 AM on February 7, 2012


elgilito: "Countries that use the Bras d'honneur laugh at that tiny American finger. A side effect of globalization is that one can now combine both for extra oomph"

God, the Polish tennis player in the example picture in that entry looks so goddamned...joyous! yes, joyous...to be running that gesture.


For a fuck-you, up-yours, vafanculo trifecta, you can run your bent-arm hand from under your chin, and display your finger. Do it gracefully (takes practice; ask me about my childhood!) and people will bug-eye at the brazenness of it!
posted by notsnot at 6:00 AM on February 7, 2012 [1 favorite]


I've never actually seen this done in the US...

Many of us have.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 6:02 AM on February 7, 2012 [3 favorites]


Here's two interesting questions for all:

1) Is it "flipping", as in "flipping the bird," or is it "flicking," as in "flicking somebody off"?

My hunch is that "flipping" is the older term, and a new generation of children who were never taught directly, interpreted it as "flicking," based on the finger motion.

2) Do you hold your fingers down with your thumb, forming a fist, or do you have your thumb extended to the side?

This surely interacts with flicking/flipping. I remember vividly when my father saw me giving my brother the finger, pulled me aside and told me I looked like a fool, using my thumb to hold my fingers down. A REAL bird, he said, stands on its own.

I have to say, the aesthetic on the other side of it sure is more striking with the thumb extended. Anybody else have info/thoughts?
posted by phenylphenol at 6:04 AM on February 7, 2012


Regarding M.I.A.'s gesture at the Super Bowl, obviously, she was not flipping the bird, it was just a digital malfunction.
posted by beagle at 6:15 AM on February 7, 2012 [4 favorites]


A Jimmy Fallon hashtag joke from last year? #worstthingIeverdid

"Taught my five year old nephew that "the finger" was sign language for hello"


"Hello?" I thought it was a Hawaiian good luck sign!
posted by TedW at 6:16 AM on February 7, 2012 [1 favorite]


And here I thought it was around the same time that the idea gained dominance that 'offensive' is about what other people say and do rather than your own response to it.

The person doing the action is on the offense. Like in a game - the team with possession of the ball is the offensive team. The team reacting to the offense is said to be on the defense. It's not a terribly new concept.

---

We lived in England for a while when I was a kid, and one day at school (I was in the 5th grade, whatever it was called at my school, can't remember) after games, our teacher asked us which of our teams had come in first, second third. I was on the second-place team, and so raised two fingers to indicate this. My friend grabbed my hand and pulled it down. The teacher gave me a funny look, but I didn't get in trouble, being the ignorant Yankee.
posted by rtha at 6:16 AM on February 7, 2012


phenylphenol: "1) Is it "flipping", as in "flipping the bird," or is it "flicking," as in "flicking somebody off"?

This is related to your second question. I think of "flicking" as when you make a fist with the middle finger barely held down, and let it pop up. "Flipping" is more of the open-gesture, and involves rolling your had from a neutral, almost-palm-down position to the palm-up, finger-raised, thumb-out position.

2) Do you hold your fingers down with your thumb, forming a fist, or do you have your thumb extended to the side?
"

The fist is a little more formal. THe thumb-out variant is informal/casual - it conveys "Fuck you, but you're not worth a proper gesture." The MAD magazine finger cover has the fist, but esp in the late 60s/early70s when it was shown often inside the magazine, the thumb-out variant was more common.

Here I am, beanplating the semiotics of gestural variations - I think it had something to do with growing up sheltered and trying to figure out *exactly* what the other kids meant. (As it turns out, little kids just ape adults, and there's rather low precision to their cursing and gestures. As a kid trying to figure out what it all means, that it all means nothing in particular is a rather thorough mindfuck.)
posted by notsnot at 6:23 AM on February 7, 2012


I haven't come across a lot of middle fingers in Greece.

It's a rather widespread gesture, but most often used by younger people due to its offensive nature.
posted by ersatz at 6:26 AM on February 7, 2012


Countries that use the Bras d'honneur laugh at that tiny American finger.

Old Man Renault, being an immigrant to these fair lands, didn't know about the finger or its meaning, and exclusively used the bras d'honneur. The factory floor being the melting pot it is, the meaning of the middle finger was made clear soon enough to him, but the bras d'honneur, with its much more emphatic, violent motion, and the clap of the cupped hand against the inner elbow, was similarly also a mystery at first, but became quickly understood by his brothers in the shop, and its use embraced by all.
posted by Capt. Renault at 6:32 AM on February 7, 2012 [1 favorite]


One of the best things about attending an international high school was learning about the rainbow of nations and their many varieties of obscene gestures. I'm good in the UK, Greece, Turkey, Italy, Israel...
posted by JoanArkham at 6:36 AM on February 7, 2012


Many, many years ago I happened to watch some movie —maybe "Repo Man"— which had been edited for television so that all the "fucks" had been changed into "flips". There were lines like "flip you, you flipping motherflipper" and so on.

After the movie ended, the next thing on was a stand-up comedian talking about how women like to go shopping, but men just like to stay home and flip the remote on the TV.

Moral of the story: one "flips" the bird.
posted by fantabulous timewaster at 6:40 AM on February 7, 2012




A recent National Geographic had a short sidebar about "hand gestures around the world" in which they claimed that the "thumbs up" sign (fist closed, thumb pointing up) is an insult in Afghanistan.

Wikipedia says it's obscene in Iran, but means "perfect" in Egypt.
posted by freecellwizard at 6:53 AM on February 7, 2012


┌∩┐ ►_◄ ┌∩┐ <--- one of those Boston drivers flipping you off w/ both hands
posted by bukvich at 7:03 AM on February 7, 2012 [2 favorites]


(It looks fine in Courier!)
posted by bukvich at 7:03 AM on February 7, 2012


When I was a teen, flipping the bird with your thumb closed tight around your fist was seen as 'dorky.' The cool way to do it was to flip someone off while kind of leaving the rest of your hand rather loose, like "Fuck you... I guess."
posted by muddgirl at 7:13 AM on February 7, 2012


One more item for my "What makes Diogenes so fucking excellent?" Power Point presentation!
posted by Meatbomb at 7:19 AM on February 7, 2012 [4 favorites]


I'm curious if anyone has any information on the origin of the modern Greek tradition of shoving an open hand in a person's face, God forbid actually touching them

Seeing this post reminded me of an old video I saw as a kid on a science channel with Desmond Morris describing various gestures of insult. I think it's this one here: skip to about 9 minutes in on this episode of The Human Animal. He mentions the Greek gesture and says that it dates to Byzantine and simulates the throwing of excrement on the person.
posted by msbrauer at 7:36 AM on February 7, 2012


The other thing about the thumb-out bird is that it's also a map of West Virginia.
posted by Mister Moofoo at 7:43 AM on February 7, 2012


Nay, as they dare. I will bite my thumb at them;
which is a disgrace to them, if they bear it.
posted by XMLicious at 7:44 AM on February 7, 2012


Yeah, Meatbomb, I too was dropping in to say: "One more thing to tell my students about Diogenes!"
posted by joe lisboa at 7:49 AM on February 7, 2012 [1 favorite]


elgilito: "Countries that use the Bras d'honneur laugh at that tiny American finger. A side effect of globalization is that one can now combine both for extra oomph"

God, the Polish tennis player in the example picture in that entry looks so goddamned...joyous! yes, joyous...to be running that gesture.


Well, he wasn't a tennis player, but a pole vaulter. But he was definitely joyous, even if, according to his Wikipedia entry, the Polish authorities excused his gesture to their less-than-thrilled Soviet Socialist "brothers" by claiming that "Kozakiewicz's arm gesture had been an involuntary muscle spasm caused by his exertion".

Which confirms that Poland, at least during the Cold War, had a highly developed sense of humour.
posted by Skeptic at 7:56 AM on February 7, 2012 [2 favorites]


When did the BBC become Yahoo Answers?
posted by rh at 7:58 AM on February 7, 2012 [2 favorites]


Well rh, the BBC web news division has the same business model as Yahoo Answers: write linkbait so they get ad page views. I'm particularly embarrassed for them that they'd report the goofy story about the V-sign being related to archers. Wikipedia has a citation saying that folk etymology for the gesture dates to about 1980.

As for the indecency of Ms. A's performance, this little visual diagram is useful contextualization.
posted by Nelson at 8:31 AM on February 7, 2012 [2 favorites]


So when you give someone the finger, your palm faces you.

Somehow when I first learned that giving people the finger was a thing, I missed this crucial piece of information. I guess I hadn't seen it close up.

So I was giving people the finger with the back of my hand facing me. That is, I was giving myself the finger.
posted by madcaptenor at 8:36 AM on February 7, 2012 [4 favorites]


What's interesting is that you don't really have to use the middle finger. Ring finger works almost as well (though it evokes a double-take). Even a pinkie or index finger could be sold with the right posture.
posted by kurumi at 8:37 AM on February 7, 2012 [1 favorite]


My favorite, from age 14 or 10 or something, was the invisible crank. Left hand up, fist closed. Right hand cranks the invisible crank, causing middle finger of left hand to raise and lower.

Where I came from, they used to hold up the bird with thumb out, and say "Russian eagle stronger than American bird!". That always seemed completely stupid to me.

So, having conjured up these playground memories, I've just lost about 45 minutes in contemplation. But it's winter here and now, and the memory is spring and moist and as vivid as they get. :-)
posted by Goofyy at 8:59 AM on February 7, 2012 [1 favorite]


This interesting. Thanks for posting it.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 9:05 AM on February 7, 2012


Next up: NPR explains the history of the Shocker.
posted by rh at 9:08 AM on February 7, 2012


When did the middle finger become offensive?

Sunday, February 5, 2012.
posted by mrgrimm at 9:15 AM on February 7, 2012 [1 favorite]


In how many years may we expect the first Superbowl Halftime Show Mooning?
posted by George_Spiggott at 9:19 AM on February 7, 2012 [1 favorite]


Lamest controversy EVAR!!1!

Seriously, music performers have been doing it for decades and it always looks lame, with only one exception.
posted by inthe80s at 9:21 AM on February 7, 2012


My favorite, from age 14 or 10 or something, was the invisible crank. Left hand up, fist closed. Right hand cranks the invisible crank, causing middle finger of left hand to raise and lower.

That is still my go-to move (except I crank with my left and finger with my right), followed by "SIT AND SPIN, BABY!"
posted by mrgrimm at 9:22 AM on February 7, 2012


Can you hear this? Want me to turn it UP?
posted by orme at 9:25 AM on February 7, 2012 [3 favorites]


I thought the middle finger was the standard "celebrity salute"

... and nobody mentioned George W?
posted by mrgrimm at 9:25 AM on February 7, 2012 [1 favorite]


The playground classic (because you can't get in trouble for NOT flipping someone off): "Read between the lines."
posted by muddgirl at 9:26 AM on February 7, 2012


Since we are talking gestures, my grandfather used to do one, where he stuck his thumb in his mouth, just behind his upper front teeth, and then sort of flicked it out towards someone (the target of his scorn). Is this just another F-You, or does it have another meaning?
posted by stifford at 9:30 AM on February 7, 2012


My very first thought, when learning the age of the gesture, was "I wonder if Jesus ever gave anyone the finger?"
posted by epj at 9:40 AM on February 7, 2012 [1 favorite]


Since we are talking gestures, my grandfather used to do one, where he stuck his thumb in his mouth, just behind his upper front teeth, and then sort of flicked it out towards someone (the target of his scorn). Is this just another F-You, or does it have another meaning?

My dad occasionally does this. I think it means "fuck you" as well. I thought it might be Italian in nature, but apparently varieties are all over (AskMe).

The other one I remember is holding a fist up in the middle-finger style presentation, and then slapping the bottom of your elbow with your other hand.

Both seemed less offensive (in America) than the middle finger, which was very verboten when I was a child.

a list of the non-middle-finger obscene hand gestures
posted by mrgrimm at 10:12 AM on February 7, 2012


stifford:

XMLicious has your answer above.
posted by phenylphenol at 10:16 AM on February 7, 2012


Best po-faced paternalistic BBC photo caption EVAR:

Whether or not M.I.A. was aware, the gesture originally referred to a phallus
posted by chavenet at 10:31 AM on February 7, 2012 [3 favorites]


Probably the first time someone raised it on Metafilter.
posted by Decani at 12:22 PM on February 7, 2012


The middle finger, which Mr Morris says probably arrived in the US with Italian immigrants...

I am both proud and saddened by this fact. Hey, we brought pizza too.
posted by Splunge at 12:44 PM on February 7, 2012


Nay, as they dare. I will bite my thumb at them; which is a disgrace to them, if they bear it.

I do not bite my thumb at you sir; but I bite my thumb, sir.
posted by kirkaracha at 1:05 PM on February 7, 2012 [1 favorite]


I've got something in my eye -- can you see it?
posted by Capt. Renault at 1:21 PM on February 7, 2012


1) Is it "flipping", as in "flipping the bird," or is it "flicking," as in "flicking somebody off"?

Flipping. Flipping the bird, flipping someone off. I have never, ever heard "flicking" in the context of giving someone the finger.

2) Do you hold your fingers down with your thumb, forming a fist, or do you have your thumb extended to the side?"

As others have said, thumb-out is less committal, thumb in is more serious. The most aggressive version has the non-middle fingers bent at the second knuckle.

The real thing, however, is almost never seen, as it requires a lot of practice: It's like the full aggro version, except the pinky is down flat against the palm. What you're left with is a recognizable phallus made up of the middle finger as the penis and the two adjacent half-bent fingers as the testicles.
posted by Sys Rq at 2:33 PM on February 7, 2012 [1 favorite]


It's like the full aggro version, except the pinky is down flat against the palm.

So of course I just tried this (this is like the hair-braiding thread, except at least I have enough fingers to try this!).

My pinky will not lay flat - or at least, won't stay close to the palm - if my ring finger is to maintain a somewhat-upright (i.e. bent at the second knuckle) position. From my long-ago piano lessons, I have a vague remembrance that this is because the ring finger and the pinky are connected to one another in a way that other fingers are not. Or maybe I'm doing it rong?
posted by rtha at 2:49 PM on February 7, 2012


All this talk has me nostalgic for when I first worked in a hostel -- the then-manager was a hilariously unworldly person who thought that actually speaking a second language was not necessary for communication with guests from abroad. She demonstrated how she used the "universal language" of gestures such as the thumbs-up and the A-OK sign. No telling how many guests from the Middle East and Asia and Africa she cheerfully signed, "You are an asshole," or, "Faggot!" or, "Up yours!" to.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 3:26 PM on February 7, 2012


I really hope that those guests were worldly enough to know that some people are unworldly enough to not know that gestures aren't universal.
posted by madcaptenor at 3:29 PM on February 7, 2012


I learned the hard way that poking your thumb between your fingers and making a fist ( like you might if you played " got your nose" with a toddler) is pretty offensive in South Korea. Apparently it's meant to resemble a penis entering a vagina.
posted by peppermind at 7:39 PM on February 7, 2012


peppermnind - similar deal in Central Asia, and apparently it is like "good luck" or a "thumbs up" in Brazil. It was a lot of laughs when on a training course in Bishkek our Brazillian trainer presented everyone with a little wooden keychain with a fist in this gesture! Everyone was all WTF and it was an excellent real life illustration of cross-cultural miscommunication.
posted by Meatbomb at 7:46 PM on February 7, 2012


My pinky will not lay flat - or at least, won't stay close to the palm - if my ring finger is to maintain a somewhat-upright (i.e. bent at the second knuckle) position. From my long-ago piano lessons, I have a vague remembrance that this is because the ring finger and the pinky are connected to one another in a way that other fingers are not. Or maybe I'm doing it rong?

The trick is to hold the ring finger in place with the thumb.

"Lay flat" isn't the best way to describe the position of the pinky; it'll more likely be a bit curled or sticking out straight. As long as it's not visible from the other side of the hand, you're golden.

P.S. It should hurt a little.
posted by Sys Rq at 9:28 PM on February 7, 2012


I have to say, the aesthetic on the other side of it sure is more striking with the thumb extended. Anybody else have info/thoughts?

When I was a teen, flipping the bird with your thumb closed tight around your fist was seen as 'dorky.'


Sys Rq has it. My older brother used to laugh at my 1st grader attempts, then taught me how it's done. Back of hand faces the ground, more or less, middle finger straight up. Index / ring parallel with the middle, bent in at the second knuckle. Thumb position is second nature with regard to your emotional state, let it be. The pinky will naturally curl in and get out of the picture.

The worst thing is to cock (!) the index / ring fingers out, as the pinky will follow suit, resulting in the unfortunate "third ball" effect.
posted by wallabear at 10:16 PM on February 7, 2012


The trick is

Aha! Got it!
posted by rtha at 10:34 PM on February 7, 2012 [1 favorite]


If anyone wants more guidance in flipping the bird, I offer this instruction video.
posted by maryrussell at 3:25 PM on February 8, 2012


instructionAL, ugh.
posted by maryrussell at 3:26 PM on February 8, 2012


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