“An arbitrary, ridiculous thing”

My youngest son has had an unfortunate habit since the time he was very little. He innocently points with his middle finger. We’ve tried (while carefully hiding our snickers behind our hands) to break him of it with gentle reminders that pointer finger is for pointing, but even at nearly 5, he sometimes reverts to it. Now we also remind him that it is a rude gesture and he is quick to correct himself.

But as he’s getting bigger he’s starting to get more contemplative and wants to know not just how the world works, but also why things are the way they are. Enter the difficult questions. I’m not talking about the “What happens when I die” and “where do babies come from” questions that every parent dreads. Those questions, I think I am mom enough to handle. What gets me are the ones for which I genuinely do not know the answer. Like this one:

“Why is it rude to show my middle finger to someone?”

When “it just is” no longer satisfies, I am forced to do a little research, to ask where and why this offensive gesture first popped up. Here’s the story:

The setting is France in the year 1415 during the Battle of Agincourt (obviously you all remember that one). The French soldiers got caught up in that oh-so-French tradition (as any Monty Python fan can attest) of mocking their English enemies. Specifically, they pompously informed the English bowmen that they would capture them all and cut off their middle and index fingers. Those being the fingers they used to pluck the strings on their bows, custom designed and crafted from the yew trees of their homeland, this was a creatively violent threat. Now I’m sure I don’t need to tell you the outcome of the battle, but for those of you history-phobes (yes, it’s a word) who might have temporarily forgotten, the battle didn’t go as the French planned. When the fighting was over, the English bowmen proudly displayed their index and middle fingers and shouted, “We can still pluck yew!” At that point, what remained of the French army ran away groaning.

As a practical historian I really can’t ask for a better story than this, complete with punch line. The legend continues that over the years the two fingered gesture became the one-finger gesture we know today and, well, you can probably imagine what happened to the phrase.

But it’s not likely true (I know. I can’t help feeling a little sad, too). Actually the gesture dates back to long before 1415. It shows up as far back as Ancient Greece and the Romans apparently loved it so much they had a special name for it, the digitus impudicus (roughly translated as the finger with which one plucks yew).  Humans have been playing around with this one obscene gesture literally for millennia.

But that doesn’t answer the question of why it is considered so rude. I think we can learn the most by examining when it’s used. At its core, “flying the bird” is a display of aggression in a situation when actual aggression is either impossible or ill-advised. It has become a universal symbol for “Boy am I mad at you!”

Unfortunately it has become so ubiquitous, its applications so varied, that it can also mean such things as: “I’m sure I’m not the first person to let you know what a terrible driver you are, but just in case…,” “Why yes, officer, I am anxious to go to prison,” “I have a political statement to make, but truth be told, I’m not all that articulate,” and “It turns out I don’t actually have anything for you in my pocket after all.”

I think, then, it’s best if we turn to an expert to clear this up for us, and by expert I mean Jerry Seinfeld. Of the aforementioned gesture, Seinfeld says:

“It seems like such an arbitrary, ridiculous thing …Someone shows it to me and I’m supposed to feel bad…I mean, you could give someone the toe, really, couldn’t you? I would feel worse if I got the toe…‘cause it’s not easy to give someone the toe, you’ve gotta get the shoe off, the sock off and drive, get it up and…‘look at that toe, buddy.’ I mean that’s really insulting to get the toe, isn’t it?”

Just maybe, then, the offensiveness of today’s middle finger gesture is really about a lack of creativity. That’s an answer I can give my son. The next time he asks me why the middle finger is rude my response may go something like this:

People put up their middle fingers to express frustration with others, and while it’s okay to be frustrated, it is always rude to disregard people as not worth our best efforts. By displaying our middle fingers, we are blatantly copying off of our ancestors from thousands of years ago and are thus participating in unimaginative communication. We owe our fellow humans more than that, don’t you think?

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