I’m sure most of us have used the middle finger at some point in our lives, but have you thought about where this obscene yet often-needed gesture comes from?
I was re-watching James Cameron’s very famous movie, Titanic, recently. You might have heard of it?
Historically, I have done this to fill up my romantic fuel tank, but this time, I found myself asking some important questions that were unrelated to the love story.
Specifically, there’s a scene before the ship slams against the iceberg, where Rose, the female protagonist, decides to free herself from her fiance’s tight grip. As her (now ex)-fiance’s bodyguard pursues her, she flips him off.
The movie was set in 1912, and that particular scene would have occurred on April 14, 1912, to be exact, the fateful day when the ship sank.
Rose’s gesture got me thinking about the middle finger’s origin story.
Where did it come from? Was it even around in 1912? Why that particular finger?
As it turns out, The Bird is “one of the most ancient insult gestures known,” says anthropologist Desmond Morris. According to his research, the upright finger represents a penis and the bent fingers represent testicles.
Tacitus, a Roman historian, documented German tribesmen flipping off oncoming Roman soldiers. He lived from 56 AD to 120 AD, so this non-verbal communication between the Germans and Romans occurred well before the first photographic capture of the middle finger in the United States.
In 1886, Charles Radbourn, a Boston Beaneaters pitcher put his middle finger on display in a photo with the New York Giants. I wonder if Radbourn knew he was making history.
There was one period during which usage of the digitus impudicus decreased: “the middle finger gesture fell out of favor during the Middle Ages, likely because the Catholic Church disapproved of its sexual suggestiveness,” notes Brian Palmer, in Slate.
That’s not hard to believe. The Middle Ages, the period of European history spanning from the 5th to the 15th century, was a time when even small crimes resulted in severe punishment.
The Roman Catholic Church engineered and employed several gruesome torture methods, a well-known example of which was The Stocks. These were comprised of two wooden planks that locked a person’s ankles in place. They were primarily designed to afflict the victim with shame and discomfort.
The stocks were in the horrific company of other torture methods known as the Breast Ripper, Coffin Torture, and the Catherine Wheel. Anyone else starting to get queasy?
The point is: it makes sense that people would be considerably less likely to subvert the Church’s firm stance against lewdness, as disobeying could result in your body being stretched and rotated until each of its bones was slowly, excruciatingly, broken.
Today, there are many names for the middle finger. We’ve got: Jersey Salute, One Finger Salute, George Bush Sign, Big Bird, Birdie, The Bird, (lots of bird references). This is by no means a comprehensive list. Before all of these monikers came to be, the middle finger was called digitus impudicus in Latin, which translates to “shameless, indecent or offensive finger”
This sort of makes me think the finger’s use as a vulgar gesture was always guaranteed.
So what does using the middle finger mean exactly? (Apart from the fact that your parents didn’t raise you well. I jest, I jest.)
I’ve always understood it to mean “F*** off” or “F*** you.” While it is generally translated that way, there’s more to the story. Morris describes it as a phallus “that you’re offering to people, which is a very primeval display.”
The digitus impudicus is about power and self-expression, however vulgar and crass.
In modern-day, it has evolved to suit a wide range of situations. It is a prevalent way to express distaste for someone on the road, and it is utilized to protest the government.
When Rose uses it in Titanic, she’s letting the bodyguard and herself know that she’s done with the restrictive norms of her station in life. A rich history of subversion allows her longest finger, when erect, to be a statement of liberation.
Now I know.
The process of writing this post reminded me of some advice my college Political Science professor imparted to us on the final day of class. It went something like this:
“The world will remain an interesting place as long as you ask questions.”
You can follow my journey at rebecaansar.com