Whether you call it the finger, the bird, or the one finger salute, there are many names for the universal sign meaning, “Fuck you.” It’s undeniable that there’s an art to giving the finger; the timing, angle, and duration of your gesture can make or break how effectively you land an insult. When executed just right, throwing a middle finger (or two) in the air can be one of the most satisfying feelings in the world—and it’s actually a sign of protest and defiance that’s been around for centuries.
In 1892, anthropologist Frank Hamilton Cushing published “Manual Concepts: A Study of The Influence of Hand-Usage on Culture Growth” in The American Anthropologist. Cushing contends that hand gestures are what make humans distinct as a race. Centuries earlier, Aristotle argued that language was humanity’s defining characteristic, but Cushing said the way we use our hands is even more significant than what comes out of our mouths.
Flipping people off is an act as old as the Pantheon. The ever-subversive ancient Greeks used their middle fingers to symbolize sex (not “making love” sex, the rude, derogatory kind, a.k.a. fucking) and it was used, as it is today, to express displeasure toward someone.
Diogenes Laertius, a classical-era biographer of Greek philosophers, was said to have tossed a middle finger or two in his day. When Diogenes heard mention of statesman and orator Demosthenes, he gave a middle finger and cried out facetiously, “There goes the demagogue of Athens!” Diogenes was not a fan of Demosthenes, and wasn’t shy about expressing his disdain verbally and manually.
In ancient Rome, giving the finger was a physical threat. The Latin phrase for the middle finger digitus impudicus literally means “unchaste finger,” and the gesture was a symbol for anally penetrating men. The nod to anal rape isn’t entirely different (though more directly violent) from the “fuck you” meaning it has today.
Though sometimes, giving the finger didn’t actually mean the middle finger. In fact, it was a thumb that caused a lot of trouble in Shakespeare’s day. Thumb-biting in Romeo and Juliet veritably launches the star-crossed lovers’ tragedy. In the play’s first act and scene, Sampson of House Capulet noticed a couple of no-good Montagues walking around, and bites his thumb at them as a sign of disrespect. In Elizabethan times, putting the tip of one’s thumb behind their top front teeth and flicking it out was tantamount to the middle finger, and at least in the case of Romeo and Juliet, was as good as spouting some serious fightin’ words. A bloody fight ensues between the squads—all because of a thumb.
In the U.S., it’s the middle finger that dominates as one of the most recognizable hand gestures, so it’s no surprise that the first known photograph of flipping the bird was taken in America. Around the same time that Cushing published “Manual Concepts,” it’s said the first known photo of a person flipping the bird was taken. In an 1889 Boston Beaneaters baseball team photo, Charles “Old Hoss” Radbourn is shown with a middle finger up. It’s a great example of the bird as a non-violent form of protest: Hoss and the Beaneaters were about to play the New York Giants (the two teams were pictured together) and Hoss was expressing his feelings about the age-old rivalry between Boston and New York.
While Radbourn’s flip-off is famous for being the first caught on film, it’s far from the last (in)famous middle finger.
More celebrities have flipped off cameras than can be counted, and some of those images have become iconic. Almost anyone who’s been in a college dorm room in the last three decades is familiar with a black and white photo of musician Johnny Cash grimacing and holding his middle finger up. The photo was taken when Cash performed at San Quentin State Prison in 1969, and was told by the photographer to pose for a snapshot for the warden. So Cash held up his middle finger and made his feelings about the prison’s leader exceptionally clear.
In 1994 when former president George W. Bush won governorship of Texas, he showed his old party boy colors and gave a news camera the bird and called it a “one-fingered victory salute.” While Bush framed the finger as celebratory, it could also be interpreted as a “go to hell” aimed at his Democratic rival, Ann Richards. Bush’s win was not sweeping (53.48 percent to 45.88), and it seems he wanted to get one last jab at Richards before making his televised victory speech.
The middle finger has also been prominently featured in contemporary political art. The Museum of Modern Art holds Chinese artist Ai Weiwei’s photo, Study of Perspective-Tiananmen Square, which shows the artist’s outstretched arm with his middle finger raised in the foreground, and Tiananmen Square in the background. Ai Weiwei’s art is deeply rooted in anti-government protest, and “the bird” in front of Tiananmen Square visually echoes his written protests against the Chinese government.
Similarly, Czech sculptor David Cerny sent a larger-than-life purple middle finger sculpture down the Vltava River—which runs past the president’s palace—in a not-so-subtle message to Czech President Milos Zeman when he took office in 2013. Cerny told The New York Times, “This finger is aimed straight at the castle politics. After 23 years, I am horrified at the prospect of the Communists returning to power and of Mr. Zeman helping them to do so.”
It’s very common for middle fingers to be employed to express discontent or even rage toward the government and other powerful institutions; in fact, middle fingers can be seen as integral to contemporary protests in the U.S.
During the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) protests in 2011 and 2012, many middle fingers were thrown in the general direction of the Wall Street establishment, and more directly at individual police. Two OWS protesters were arrested and charged with disorderly conduct for doing the latter on a train car in 2013. The pair sued, and won a cool $52,000 for having their First Amendment rights violated.
While middle fingers are sometimes looked down on as vulgar or indecent, vulgarity and indecency are at the heart of why we give the finger. A raised middle finger reflects something detestable, and shows whoever committed the offense just how awful we think it is. A symbol of protest and defiance—whether over sports, politics, or family feuds—it’s clear that a single finger can be worth so much more than two words.