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Flipping The Bird

from Slate

Cluck You – Why do we call giving someone the finger “flipping the bird”?

By 

MIA during Super Bowl halftime
Photo by Christopher Polk.

Madonna was upstaged at her own Super Bowl halftime show Sunday when guest performer M.I.A. extended her middle finger at the camera. When did we start calling this gesture “flipping the bird?”

The obscene gesture itself is far older than that, though. As many writers have pointed out, the middle finger became a symbol of the penis at least 2,500 years ago. In Aristophanes’ 423 B.C.E. play The Clouds, the character Strepsiades jokes that when he was a boy he kept time by tapping his phallus rather than his middle finger. If showing someone the middle finger wasn’t already a common insult at that time, it became one within the next century. The Greek philosopher Diogenes showed his middle finger as a sign of disrespect to the orator Demosthenes in the fourth century B.C.E. (The ancient Greeks also associated the penis with birds, although there’s no evidence that they ever referred to the middle finger itself as a bird or showing it to someone as “flipping the bird.”) The ancient Romans called the middle finger digitus impudicus, or the impudent finger. In a show of superiority, eccentric Roman Emperor Caligula made senators kneel and kiss his middle finger, which was understood to represent his phallus. The middle finger gesture fell out of favor during the Middle Ages, likely because the Catholic Church disapproved of its sexual suggestiveness. The earliest known use of the bird in the New World didn’t come until 1886, when a pitcher for the Boston Beaneaters flashed his middle finger in a team photo.’

In the 1960s. Birds have a long association with taunting. English audiences have expressed their dissatisfaction by hooting like owls or hissing like threatened geese for more than 700 years. In the final speech of Troilus and Cressida, Pandarus confesses that “my fear is this, some galled goose of Winchester would hiss.” The practice was so common by the early 19thcentury that Englishmen were using goose as a verb. By the middle of that century, goose generalized to bird, but it was still limited to vocal jeering. The phrase “flip the bird,” referring specifically to the one-fingered salute, arose in the 1960s.

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Posted on February 7, 2012 by Editor

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