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Re: History of gesture

Posted by Chris Yate on January 10, 2002

In Reply to: History of gesture posted by R. Berg on January 08, 2002

: : : : : : Where does the phrase "flipping someone the bird" come from?

: : : : : I couldn't find anything on the use of "bird" for finger in this phrase.

: : : : The following, from Eric Partridge's "Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English," may be relevant although it makes no mention of the hand gesture. To give someone the bird is "to dismiss [him], send him about his business . . . late C. 19-20. [From] the theatre . . . In Australia, 'give the bird' is to treat with derision: from before 1916."
: : : : In obsolete theatrical usage (Partridge gives a date of 1883), "the bird" is defined as "a hissing of an actor," from the sound made by geese.

: : : I'm wondering whether we can point the finger at Cockney rhyming slang again here... always a useful last resort. Could "bird" be rhyming slang for "third", as in third finger? Or is this too far-fetched?

: : Being far-fetched or not isn't an important criterion. Sometimes the correct explanation is less intuitively plausible than the incorrect ones. Maybe "bird" originated as rhyming slang, maybe not--what we need is some historical evidence.

: The Straight Dope has a column on the history of the gesture, which is ancient (use link below or http://www.straightdope.com/classics/a980904.html) but doesn't explain its name.

The british variant two-fingered insult (index and middle fingers like Winston Churchill's V sign backwards) is supposed to indicate the shape of a woman's pubic region - perhaps it means the subject is a c**t or similar. Also the story about the french cutting off middle fingers (see straight dope article...) - in order that enemy (British) soldiers could not draw their longbows, seems more plausible if it was actually two fingers - i'm not sure if simply removing the middle finger would really impede archery that much.