Flipping the bird is one of the oldest, most primitive gestures we have. On a daily basis, I give the finger to close friends, drivers who cut me off, and/or people I dislike.
In preschool, my friend told me that extending your middle finger while curling your other digits into a fist means ‘Fuck you.’ I didn’t really know what it meant to say ‘Fuck you’ to someone, just that it was bad. On a road trip with my mom shortly afterward, I flipped off a random trucker, curious about the effect my finger would have. I think this was the first time I gave someone the bird. The trucker rolled down his window and yelled at me. We were on the freeway, so I couldn’t hear him. I was a four-year-old kid with platinum-blond hair and gapped teeth, but this burly trucker couldn’t do much to me in this moment. He pulled forward and honked to get my mom’s attention, pointing to the backseat of our car, where I sat.
“J.J.,” Mom said, turning around, “what did you do?”
“I just went like this,” I said, giving her the finger.
“Jesus. Don’t ever do that again.” She mouthed ‘sorry’ to the trucker and waved as she passed him.
Scholars trace the use of the extended middle finger as an insult back to 5th century BC, a time when people called it the digits impudicus — the impudent digit. It’s impossible to pinpoint exactly how and why the middle finger became a way to offend someone, but many scholars attribute this meaning to the gesture’s phallic implications. Anthropologist Desmond Morris says, “The middle finger [represents] the penis and the curled fingers on either side are the testicles. By doing it, you are offering someone a phallic gesture…which is a very primeval display.”
In ancient Greece, the middle finger was used to degrade, intimidate, and/or threaten. Several species of monkeys use their erect cocks in similar ways, essentially saying to other male monkeys: “Get the fuck out of here. This is my territory.” Neanderthal males used their equipment to communicate the same sentiment. Wanting a similar gesture without having to whip it out, Greeks and Romans started to use their middle fingers.
Examples of people using the middle finger as an insult crop up throughout ancient texts. In Aristophanes’ play, The Clouds, Socrates asks his student to define a dactyl — a poetic term that refers to a stressed syllable followed by two unstressed syllables. The student says that he knows exactly what a dactyl is, giving Socrates the bird. When I read Socrates in an intro to philosophy course five or six years ago, I also wanted to flip him off. To me, it was all just abstract bullshit.
The middle finger had multiple connotations during Aristophanes’ time. The Suda is a massive documentation of the Greek lexicon, an archaic version of Urban Dictionary that contains over 30,000 entries. In it, the extended middle finger is said to signify touching the anus. Directing the gesture at a man could be a way to call him gay, to insult his manliness. Mostly though, the finger represented the phallus, so it’s always been a way to say ‘Fuck you,’ even before people started to use the word ‘fuck.’
In Greece, Italy, and the rest of Europe, people never stopped using the middle finger to fuck with each other. During the middle ages, knights would often give other knights the finger as a way to signify an erect lance, saying that they were ready to fight.
When France and England were at war during the 1400s, French soldiers circulated a rumor: after defeating the English, they planned to cut off each soldier’s middle and index fingers so they couldn’t fire their longbows. The English were infamous for their archery skills, and their longbows were part of their national identity. After England defeated France in the Battle of Agincourt, English soldiers started holding up these two fingers — which, for Americans, is the peace sign — mocking the French for being so cocky. Soon, English soldiers just started to hold up their middle fingers.
The finger became a sign of resistance.
After fourth grade, flipping the bird became mundane for me and my friends, although this didn’t mean that I stopped loving the gesture. Throughout the first half of grade school, cussing and flipping people off carried the weight of disobeying our parents, who, in our heads, knew about everything we did. But then we realized that we could cuss and flip off other kids as long as an adult wasn’t around.
In junior high, my friends and I started to use the middle finger ironically, often greeting each other with the bird. If directed at the wrong person — an adult or a kid who hated us — the gesture would’ve gotten us in trouble or beaten up. You couldn’t just flip off anyone. In a sense, it became a sign of intimacy. At the same time, the finger never lost its potential to insult.
I discovered my aptitude for talking shit in junior high. Compared to a lot of other boys, I was a weakling, with scrawny arms and no idea how to carry myself in a fight. Puberty gave me large pustules on my face, neck, and back instead of muscles. During this time, a lot of my classmates started getting into real fights — bloody bouts in alleys, ditches, and empty lots. There were definitely other kids I wanted to fight, but most of them could’ve easily kicked my ass. So I started to mock the way they spoke when they weren’t around, or flip them off when they weren’t looking, holding my middle finger to their backs after they called me a faggot.
I got beaten up in front of my friends when I was sixteen for talking shit, but this didn’t stop me from constantly running my mouth and flipping people off. It only made me more of an asshole, and I was definitely an asshole before I got my ass kicked. Although most of my classmates, including several girls, could’ve fucked me up without much effort, they couldn’t fuck with how I chose to use language.
In a picture taken in 1886, Old Hoss Radbourn, an infamously cantankerous pitcher for the Boston Beaneaters, flips off his rivals in the New York Giants — the first documented use of the finger in the US. The Giants destroyed the Beaneaters that day. Boston didn’t stand a chance, and Old Hoss knew this.
He stands on the left side of the frame, resting his right hand on a kneeling teammate’s shoulder. Hoss wears a white long-sleeve, and his cap sits low, the brim almost covering his eyes. With his angular handlebar moustache, he looks mean as hell. Holding his left hand just above his teammate’s other shoulder, Old Hoss extends his middle finger, directing it at the Giants’ dugout. American flags adorn the stadium walls, and the bleachers are packed with men wearing black coats and bowler caps.
I like to imagine members of the Giants looking at the photograph. Unless you know what to look for, you probably wouldn’t notice Old Hoss’s extended finger. Maybe one of the Giants kept the photo as a keepsake to remember the day they annihilated the Beaneaters, leaving it on his mantle and mostly just glancing at it, or taking in the scene as a whole rather than focusing on any individual player. Then one morning, perhaps sipping his coffee or having a smoke, the Giant noticed Old Hoss’s finger. “Old Hoss,” he might’ve said, his cheeks becoming red with anger, “that motherfucker.”
Desmond Morris, who’s done a shitload of research on the finger, thinks Italian immigrants brought the gesture to America. My great-great grandparents immigrated to America from Italy during the early 1900s, and I love the idea that the finger is part of my Italian heritage.
During the 60s and 70s, my grandpa Don became a successful businessman in Rock Springs, Wyoming — my hometown. He was also the Democratic State Chairman of Wyoming from 1975-77. Grandpa only had a high school diploma, although many of his fellow politicians had degrees. When someone condescendingly asked him where he’d gone to college, Grandpa often said, “FU,” giving the person the bird.
Because Grandpa Don and his brothers were successful businessmen, people in town expected my dad to become a businessman, too; but Dad didn’t want to follow in his father’s footsteps, didn’t give a shit about starting his own business. He’s smoked pot for my entire life, and he supported me, my mom, and sister with money he earned working long, backbreaking shifts at a power plant — his ways of giving the finger to people who told him how he’d turn out.
For as long as I can remember, Dad has encouraged me to be skeptical of cops and other authority figures, and I’m grateful for this. Whenever we saw a cop in Rock Springs, Dad would say something sarcastic like, “Better watch out for Johnny Law.” Dad taught me to approach society with a perpetually raised mental middle finger, choosing for myself which laws to obey and which ones to break.
Amidst the cultural soup of early 20th century America, the middle finger was a gesture anyone could understand. No matter if you spoke English, Italian, Spanish, German, Portuguese, or any other language, you knew what it meant when someone flipped you off. As the automobile started to dominate society, the middle finger became even more widespread. People passing in other cars couldn’t hear if you shouted, “Go fuck yourself!” But you could give them the bird.
The middle finger is a textbook example of manual communication — basic gestures and body language that convey a specific, and often simple, message. In a lot of ways, manual communication is the basis of all human language. You can use manual communication to signify thirst — drinking from an imaginary bottle — or hunger — spooning air into your mouth — anywhere in the world. Slicing your index finger across your throat will always work as a threat, or a way to signify danger. Making a circle with your index finger and thumb and sliding your other index finger through it — I don’t need to tell you what this means.
Ways to signify hunger, thirst, danger, and sex are all straightforward and self-explanatory, but manual gestures disconnect from the signified when it comes to signs of approval and disapproval. For most of the Western world, the thumbs-up is a sign of approval, a way to agree to someone’s plan, or tell someone they’ve done a good job. But, in parts of the Middle East, Africa, and South America, the thumbs-up is a way to say ‘Sit on it.’ When American soldiers land in Iraq, Iraqis often greet them with the thumbs-ups, which the soldiers usually misinterpret as a friendly gesture. This is one of the most meaningful examples of manually telling someone to fuck off that I’ve heard of.
Throughout many Spanish-speaking countries, the Iberian slap is a common form of manual communication, basically meaning ‘Up yours.’ You curl one arm into an ‘L’ and make a fist, slapping your bicep with your other hand — a gesture that’s attained the same meaning in America. In Egypt and Israel, holding up your hand and wiggling your middle finger while keeping the other fingers straight is the equivalent to flipping someone off.
When you look at our manual gestures and what they signify, you get a list of our most basic physical and emotional needs: food, water, safety, sex, the ability to show approval, and the ability to tell people to go fuck themselves.
I flipped off my principal, Dr. Wendling, at my high school graduation ceremony — easily my most memorable experience with the finger. Wendling was a football coach, and both of his sons were star athletes. While we read beat-up copies of Catcher in the Rye in my English class, the football players walked around school with brand new game and practice jerseys, both of which were personalized.
I didn’t skip class very often, but I hardly did any homework, only caring about BMX, heavy metal, and girls. One of the few teachers I actually connected with was Mrs. Jasper, the only black teacher at Rock Springs High. One day during my senior year, as Mrs. Jasper and the other AP students talked about One Hundred Years of Solitude, I stared at a purple Jimi Hendrix poster taped onto Mrs. Jasper’s file cabinet, finding patterns in Jimi’s afro.
Dr. Wendling knocked on the door and came in. “Sorry to interrupt,” he said, smiling at my classmates and me. “I don’t think Mrs. Jasper will mind, though. Teachers can’t get their paychecks soon enough, right Mrs. Jasper?” Smirking, he handed her an envelope. “Well, I better get going.” Watching him walk through the door, I hoped he would trip.
Mrs. Jasper looked at us and rolled her eyes. “I don’t even want to get started on how inappropriate that was,” she said.
Mrs. Jasper and Dr. Wendling didn’t hide their dislike for each other. During my sophomore year, handing out dingy, tattered copies of Catcher in the Rye, Mrs. Jasper said, “I’m really sorry about these books. It’s ridiculous. They say the school doesn’t have enough money for books when the football team gets brand new game and practice jerseys.” A few football players and cheerleaders shifted in their seats. “Anyway, I won’t talk about that right now.” I’m sure word got around about Mrs. Jasper talking shit on Wendling, which must have pissed him off.
Later, in my senior English class, which consisted of five socially awkward kids, Mrs. Jasper said, also talking about poor book quality, “Well, this is what happens when a muscle-head football coach runs your school.”
I knew that the state pays teachers, so, when Wendling handed Mrs. Jasper her paycheck in class, it seemed like a way to make himself feel dominant.
Just before graduation, my best friend, Steve, and I decided that we had to fuck with Wendling somehow. In addition to everything else that made me hate him, Wendling and an art teacher, Mrs. Meeks, had barred Steve from entering his work into a state contest because they thought his drawings and paintings were obscene. Steve refused to turn in art they deemed acceptable, so he also failed his senior art class. He drew and painted skulls, swords, and daggers, but he didn’t depict gore in his pictures. Steve was just a young metal head who had a fascination with death. Failing the class destroyed Steve’s chances of getting an art scholarship, which was the only way he could’ve afforded college.
Steve and I considered taking shits on the hood of Wendling’s car, egging his house, placing rotten food in his mailbox, and pouring sugar into his gas tank. Steve came up with the idea of flipping him off at graduation. It seemed beautiful: done with school, our diplomas in hand, Wendling couldn’t do shit to us.
At the graduation ceremony, hundreds of folding chairs were set up in the middle of the football field. Steve and I sat in our assigned seats, a few rows apart. Teachers sat in the front row, next to a stage where the administrators stood.
After giving the typical speech about our graduating class being the future, Wendling stood in the grass, next to the stairs leading off stage. He shook each boy’s hand and hugged each girl. Families and friends of students sat in the bleachers behind us, cheering.
Steve was called to the stage before me. After getting his diploma, he shook hands with each administrator. Wendling held out his hand as Steve walked down the stairs. Steve quickly moved to the side, waving his middle finger at Wendling. Furious, but also not sure what to do, Wendling just stood there as Steve walked back to his seat. A thick vein appeared on Wendling’s bald head. To my surprise, none of my classmates sitting near me seemed to notice, and neither did the crowd.
“Holy shit, dude,” I said to a kid sitting next to me. “Did you see that?”
“Steve just flipped off Dr. Wendling.”
A few classmates heard me. Listening to their responses—“What the fuck?” “Holy shit,” and “Why?”—I laughed, also feeling anxiety rise in my throat. Fuck, I thought, now I have to do it.
“J.J. Anselmi” drifted through the speakers. After walking across the stage and down the stairs, I dodged Wendling’s out-stretched hand, holding my middle finger a few inches from his face. People in the bleachers hushed, and Wendling’s eyes widened. I’ll never forget the rush of power I felt during this moment. As the remaining students got their diplomas, Wendling tried to act like he wasn’t bothered, but his face was completely red.
Later that night, at a classmate’s graduation party, Steve and I almost got our asses kicked. A few classmates told us that we’d ruined graduation, soiling their memories with our middle fingers. Maybe it’s immature to feel this way, but I’m still glad that flipping off Dr. Wendling is my legacy at Rock Springs High School. Actually saying ‘Fuck you’ to him wouldn’t have carried the same power. My middle finger was a display that everyone could see, a gesture that instantly and unequivocally expressed how I felt to him and a crowd of people.
Now, most of the times I flip someone off, it’s ironic—a way of greeting friends. In this context, the gesture doesn’t have much meaning. While it is a sign of intimacy, each time is usually forgotten, almost immediately. We see the middle finger all the time in popular culture, so it typically doesn’t pack much of a punch. I use the finger when drivers cut me off, but this will only fuck with someone for a few moments, in large part because it’s such a common occurrence for drivers to give each other the bird.
Perhaps my most meaningful use of the finger these days happens when I’m riding my road bike. I live in Fresno, California, a flat, sprawling city that likes to see itself as a small town. There’s a lot of drivers here who don’t think bikers should be on the road.
A typical scenario: I’m pedaling down a street, staying in the bike lane as cars and trucks pass me. Someone driving a car or, more often, a truck, swerves at the bike lane and then roars past. Completely pissed, I hold up my middle finger, hoping the driver will see my impudent digit in their rearview mirror. People in cars, and especially trucks, could run me over, only causing cosmetic damage to their vehicles. But, as they drive away, feeling like they’ve just dominated me, they can’t stop me from holding my middle finger in the air.
J.J. Anselmi holds an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from CSU Fresno, where he also worked as the Assistant Nonfiction Editor of The Normal School. His first book, Heavy: a memoir of Wyoming, BMX, drugs, and heavy fucking music, is forthcoming from Rare Bird in Fall 2015. You can check out more of his writing here: jjanselmi.com