Little evidence exists regarding the origin of the middle finger. According to one legend, the gesture first appeared in France during the Battle of Agincourt in 1415. During the battle, the French threatened to cut off the middle, and index fingers of captured English bowmen because the bowmen used those two fingers to draw their longbows. The English called the act of drawing a longbow “plucking the yew,” as the bow itself was made from the English Yew tree. When French failed to capture any prisoners in battle, the English archers waved their two fingers, defiantly shouting, “We can still pluck yew!” This two-fingered salute became a gesture that is still used to this day in the United Kingdom. Over time, however, it evolved into the single middle finger.
While this anecdote is quite interesting, it is not entirely believable. For instance, in the fifteenth century, archers were not privy to strategic knowledge. In fact, archers were considered “lesser beings,” on the field of battle. At this time, knights were the top of the food chain. The idea of the French taking an archer captive for one is hard to believe. Even if they did, the archer would likely have lost his life rather than just his fingers.
The bulk of actual historical evidence suggests, however, that the middle finger gesture actually originated over twenty-five hundred years ago, appearing as far back as ancient Greek texts. In The Clouds, author Aristophanes used the middle finger gesture as a phallic symbol:
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 in an obscene gesture]: Why, it’s tapping time with this finger. Of course, when I was a boy [raising his phallus to the ready], I used to make rhythm with this one.
In general, the meaning of the middle finger in ancient Greece was quite insulting. The gesture was a reference to anal intercourse, specifically meant to degrade, intimidate, and threaten the individual on the receiving end of “being on the receiving end.” In many instances, such as the one the aforementioned one from the work of Aristophanes, the middle finger was merely a reference to male genitalia due to its visual resemblance. In this sense, it is similar to today’s meaning, by translating to “Up yours!”
The ancient Romans adopted the middle finger gesture from the Greeks. In 330 B.C., the book Lives of Eminent Philosophers referred to the middle finger gesture. A re-enactment of a meeting between Diogenes and Demosthenes has Diogenes expressing his dislike of the man by extending his middle finger and stating “There goes the demagogue of Athens.” The gesture was so popular among Romans that they endowed the middle finger with a special title: digitus impudicus. The Romans interpreted the middle finger gesture as an abrasive and insulting expression. Even Caligula would offer his extended middle finger instead of his hand for his subjects to kiss. Onlookers found the act overtly offensive. The gesture became so unacceptable that eventually Augustus Caesar banished an actor from Italy for giving the finger to an audience member who hissed at the actor during a performance.
While documentation of the middle finger in ancient Greek and Roman times is abundant, the gesture seems to have vanished during the Dark Ages. Nineteenth-century German anthropologist Carl Sittl speculated that the temporary disappearance of the middle finger is a direct result of influence of the Catholic Church during the Dark Ages. Nineteenth-century German anthropologist Carl Sittl speculated that the temporary disappearance of the middle finger is a direct result of influence the Catholic Church had over Europe during the Dark Ages. The Church’s insistence on conservative moral values may have caused the middle finger gesture’s temporary absence. Nevertheless, the gesture survived. Records indicate that Americans imported the gesture as early as 1886. The first recorded appearance of the middle finger gesture in America occurred in the photograph of a professional baseball team, where a pitcher for the Boston Beaneaters gave the middle finger while posing for a joint team picture with the New York Giants.
If you look closely at the photo, you may notice the subtle use of the middle finger by the man in the back left. The man pictured is Charles "Old Hoss" Radbourn, the aforementioned pitcher of the Boston Beaneaters. While the reason for his use in this instance is unknown, history tends to lean toward Radbourn being a generally unpleasant person, as well as being famous for his drinking. In fact, he was known for drinking while in the dugout every game. When this image was first uncovered, historians checked other photos of Radbourn and found that he had actually pulled off the same trick again. While posing for an Old Judge Tobacco baseball card, Radbourn once again slipped in his middle finger. While this is the first recorded use of the middle finger in America, it by no means is the last.
During the Cold War, for instance, North Korea captured the troops of the USS Pueblo. While captive, the North Korean troops took photographs of the American soldiers for use in propoganda. The Americans discreetly put up their middle fingers in many of these photographs. When the North Koreans caught on to the gesture, they remained ignorant to its meaning. When questioned, the Americans claimed it was a "Hawaiian Good Luck Sign." Unfortunately, the guards caught on over time, and while none of the soldiers lived through their captivity, they did send a clear message to the North Koreans.
From common folk to athletes, celebrities to politicians, the middle finger is used regardless of what someone is. It is an almost global gesture stating two very powerful words, "Fuck You!"