Published in qz.com
Bird is the word
Up yours. Screw off. You suck. Shove it. Get lost. But mostly: Eff you. These are the unmistakable meanings of the simple, crude, and highly effective middle finger gesture. It can be delivered as a sign of anger, frustration, disrespect, derision, rebellion, rejection, or general insult, and may be displayed forcefully, slyly, ironically, gleefully, or jokingly.
The use of the middle finger as a rude expression dates back thousands of years; it may be the “most ubiquitous and longest lived insulting gesture in the world” (pdf), maintaining its shocking and controversial nature long after whatever symbolism actually inspired it faded into history. It’s also a truly international insult (although people in certain countries and regions have different ways of using their anatomy to express something anatomically impossible). Let’s put our finger on the pulse.
419 BC: An Aristophanes play includes a character who gestures with his middle finger.
300s BC: Greek philosopher Diogenes allegedly gives the finger to a crowd waiting to see the statesman and orator Demosthenes.
1415: According to legend, the finger is displayed at the Battle of Agincourt (though this has been debunked).
1886: The middle finger is captured for the first time on camera in the US, displayed by baseball player Charles “Old Hoss” Radbourn in a team photo.
1928: The Academy Award-nominated Speedy features silent film star Harold Lloyd giving himself the finger in a funhouse mirror, likely the earliest known appearance in a motion picture.
1968: Crewmembers of the USS Pueblo, a US Navy ship attacked by North Korea, ruin propaganda prisoner-of-war photos taken of them by giving the finger.
1969: Singer Johnny Cash is photographed giving the finger during his famous San Quentin State Prison set.
1974: MAD magazine replaces its usual cover image featuring the character Alfred E. Neuman with a hand extending the middle finger; the controversial edition becomes a collector’s item.
1976: US vice president Nelson Rockefeller flashes the finger at a group of student hecklers on the campaign trail, giving rise to it becoming known for a time as “the Rockefeller gesture.”
1995: Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei begins a series of photographs, taken over two decades, featuring him giving his left finger to various cultural landmarks, starting with Tiananmen Square.
1998: The book The Finger: A Comprehensive Guide to Flipping Off is published by the indie ‘zine Ooze.
2015: A middle finger icon is officially added to the emoji lexicon.