When did the middle finger become offensive?

 
M.I.A. performs at the Super Bowl halftime show Whether or not M.I.A. was aware, the gesture originally referred to a phallus

An American television network has apologised after pop star M.I.A. extended her middle finger during Sunday night's Super Bowl halftime show. What does the gesture mean, and when did it become offensive?

A public intellectual, expressing his contempt for a gas-bag politician, reaches for a familiar gesture. He extends his middle finger and declares: "This is the great demagogue."

The episode occurred not on a chat show nor in the salons of New York or London, but in 4th Century BC Athens, when the philosopher Diogenes told a group of visitors exactly what he thought about the orator Demosthenes, according to a later Greek historian.

The middle finger, extended with the other fingers held beneath the thumb, is thus documented to have expressed insult and belittlement for more than two millennia.

'Phallic gesture'

Ancient Greek philosophers, Latin poets hoping to sell copies of their works, soldiers, athletes and pop stars, schoolchildren, peevish policemen and skittish network executives have all been aware of the gesture's particular power to insult and inflame.

"It's one of the most ancient insult gestures known," says anthropologist Desmond Morris.

"The middle finger is the penis and the curled fingers on either side are the testicles. By doing it, you are offering someone a phallic gesture. It is saying, 'this is a phallus' that you're offering to people, which is a very primeval display."

During Sunday night's broadcast of the Super Bowl, America's most-watched television programme of the year, British singer M.I.A. extended the finger during a performance of Madonna's Give Me All Your Luvin'.

Diogenes in his barrel telling Alexander the Great to get out of his light Diogenes of Sinope was reputedly a fan of the middle-finger gesture

The NFL and NBC television, which broadcast the game and the half-time show, apologised.

"The obscene gesture in the performance was completely inappropriate," said Brian McCarthy, a spokesman for the NFL.

The gesture is widely known to Americans as flipping the bird, or just giving someone the finger.

The Romans had their own name for it: digitus impudicus - the shameless, indecent or offensive finger.

In the Epigrammata of First Century AD by the Latin poet Martial, a character who has always enjoyed good health extends a finger, "the indecent one", at three doctors.

Monkeys' obscene gesture

The Roman historian Tacitus wrote that German tribesmen gave the middle finger to advancing Roman soldiers, says Thomas Conley, a professor emeritus of communication and classics at the University of Illinois, who has written about the rhetoric of insults.

Squirrel monkeys They may look innocent, but these squirrel monkeys are capable of their own obscene gesture

Earlier, the Greeks used the middle finger as an explicit reference to the male genitalia.

In 419BC, the playwright Aristophanes puns in his comedy The Clouds about dactylic (finger) rhythm, with a character gesturing first with his middle finger and subsequently with his crotch.

The gesture's origins may extend even further back: male squirrel monkeys of South America are known to gesture with the erect penis, says Dr Morris.

The middle finger, which Dr Morris says probably arrived in the US with Italian immigrants, is documented in the US as early as 1886, when a pitcher for the Boston Beaneaters gave it in a joint team photograph with the rival New York Giants.

Expression of 'displeasure'

The French have their own phallic salute, says Dr Morris.

In performing the "bras d'honneur" (arm of honour), one raises the forearm with the back of the hand facing outward, while slapping or gripping the inside of the elbow with the other hand.

The British gesture - the two-fingered "v" with the palm facing inward - is a "double phallus", Dr Morris quips.

Agincourt The legend that the "two-fingered salute" stems from the Battle of Agincourt is apocryphal

Although scholars and historians continue to debate its origins, according to legend it was first displayed at the battle of Agincourt in 1415, although this is widely regarded as mythology.

The story goes that English soldiers waved their fingers at French soldiers who had threatened to cut off captured archers' first two fingers to prevent them shooting arrows. The English were thus boasting they were still capable of doing so.

The middle finger's offensive meaning seems to have overtaken cultural, linguistic and national boundaries and can now be seen at protests, on football pitches, and at rock concerts across the world.

In December, Liverpool striker Luis Suarez was photographed giving an American-style middle finger to Fulham fans after his club's 1-0 loss there.

The FA cited him for improper conduct and suspended him for one game.

Protest, rage, excitement

In 2004, a Canadian MP from Calgary was accused of pointing his middle finger at a member from another party who he said had been heckling him in the House of Commons.

"I expressed my displeasure to him, let's put it this way," Deepak Obhrai told a Canadian newspaper.

Two years earlier, pop star Britney Spears gave the finger to a group of photographers in Mexico who she complained had been chasing her. Some of her fans thought the gesture was aimed at them, and Spears later apologised.

While the middle finger may historically have symbolised a phallus, it has lost that distinctive meaning and is no longer even obscene, says Ira Robbins, a law professor at American University in Washington DC, who has studied the gesture's place in criminal jurisprudence.

"It does not appeal to the prurient interests," he says.

"This gesture is so well ingrained in everyday life in this country and others. It means so many other things, like protest or rage or excitement, it's not just a phallus."

And he rejects an Associated Press journalist's characterisation of the gesture as "risque".

"What is risque about it? Maybe the dancing was risque, but the finger? I just don't see it."

 

More on This Story

In today's Magazine

Comments

This entry is now closed for comments

Jump to comments pagination
 
  • rate this
    -1

    Comment number 118.

    For those debating how offensive it is today, think on this. In the Middle East this and other gestures can land you in court and a whole heap of trouble. It is taken that seriously. An expatriate surgeon was recently acquitted on just such a charge, but not after a long and unpleasant drama. Something to remember when driving.

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 117.

    The article contains a factual error concerning the origins of a particular sign. I comment, correcting that error. The only word in my comment that even comes close to being offensive is the word "genitalia". But the comment is removed...
    But it's OK for the article to explain, and even show the gesture considered to be offensive??

    What idiot is moderating this?

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 116.

    I always saw it as a vulgar symbol of stimulating a vagina, but I'm still mystified why that should be so insulting.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 115.

    So what? Syrians are being shelled by Bashar Al-Assad and people are worried about the middle finger on TV? Everyone watching the Super Bowl has never seen the middle finger before? Sad. "But think of the children!" Well, children are going to see it at some point. Most children I know seem to pick up the meaning of the middle finger by age 8. Not hard stuff. "Get Over It" by the Eagles.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 114.

    I recall an alternative which dates to at least the 1950s. "Sit on it!" is the short version, the long one is: "Sit on this and rotate!" Much more distasteful than the penile symbolism.

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 113.

    I'm in the US. I saw the show. I barely even noticed MIA's performance. I quite honestly couldn't have cared less what she did. It seems a bit juvenile to allow a mere pop starlet such a victory by even discussing some silly gesture she may have made. It doesn't bother me in the slightest, rather I expect this behavior off people on TV.

  • rate this
    +3

    Comment number 112.

    I think M.I.A. did what most of the world has wanted to say to the US for a while now.

  • rate this
    -2

    Comment number 111.

    Of course it's an offensive gesture. Giving offense is its raison daitre. Why is this question being asked???

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 110.

    The Superbowl is not a heated political forum. It's a game - a contest of sport defining excellence. Halftime singers entertain the audience during a break in the battle of the game. As the confrontational deed was done by a lesser known singer to gain shock and fame, I wonder if this was planned in advance by Madonna? After all, didn't she kiss Britney live onstage? Wouldn't surprise me at all.

  • rate this
    -2

    Comment number 109.

    The foregoing notwithstanding, you don't address why it is high art for a performer of scant talent or intellect, to hurl finger insults at her paying audience. In your zeal to cop from your public school reader, you seem to have missed that point. What did your mother say when you flipped her off? Better 50 years of England, then a cycle of the USA, what?what?

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 108.

    Good grief what a bunch of sissies in the US and some in the UK.

    I don't live in either. I never knew about this gesture until I emigrated to Australia. I learned very quickly.

    I prefer the V one. The finger one has only taken hold over say the last 10 years. Just another sign of creeping US influences.

    My favourite use is in traffic if some one beeps me for no reason.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 107.

    100.Bobdfromupstateny

    Isn't the "horns" meant to be tradtional sign used for centuries to ward off evil?

    UKISDEAD

    I don't know which UK you're thinking of but the one I know would never be synonymous with "...bastion of tolerance and respect..."

  • Comment number 106.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 105.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this
    -2

    Comment number 104.

    I thought the UK was a bastion of tolerance and respect for all value systems. Why is the BBC offended that people might have an issue with the use of the middle finger? If you were truly tolerant you would respect someone who would be offended at the middle finger and chastise the offender for being intolerant.

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 103.

    I suppose it is hardly an international incident but even so,the gesture for all of the varied theories regarding it's origin and meaning is universally accepted as being rude and as such having a British artist use it in such a public way is a matter of regret.

  • rate this
    +4

    Comment number 102.

    #93 "Really? You are proud to have your fellow countrymen and women go over to other countries and purposely insult the locals?"

    That horse may be a bit too big for you.

  • rate this
    +4

    Comment number 101.

    96.AllenT2

    "What does that have to do with hiring a foreigner for a purely American event?"

    I notice you say nothing against Onika Tanya Maraj. The Trinidad born singer better known as Nicki Minaj, but I suppose that's different somehow... right?

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 100.

    I prefer the Heavy metal salute at concerts. Invented by Ronnie James Dio of Black Sabbath in the 1970s. Extend the index and fifth finger while placing the thumb over the middle fingers. This just implies "Lets rock and roll". This would have been PC and even comical if done while sticking your tongue out.

  • Comment number 99.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

 

Page 2 of 7

 

Features

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.