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History of gesture... the horns

Posted by The Fallen on January 11, 2002

In Reply to: History of gesture posted by Sauerkraut on January 11, 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 A 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 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.

: The middle finger would suffice. The trajectory of an arrow is determined by two points - the forward one being determined by the arrow lying on top of the hand that holds the bow, and the rear one by the nock of the arrow postioned on the string between the index and middle fingers. Without a middle finger, the gap is too great, and the flight path of the arrow would be erratic.

: Now for a leap of conjecture: could this famous gesture of contempt derive from an enemy archer displaying that he still had the middle finger, and was thus capable of causing you harm if you didn't "buzz off?" In our modern times, the gesture has been sexualized to its current usage.

Since we're on the subject of two-fingered insults, there's the old continental European gesture involving placing the tips of the middle and 4th finger against the thumb, while projecting the index and little finger up and forward. When brandished at a male (specifically), "giving someone the horns" was meant to signify that he was being cuckolded, and that his wife/significant other was enjoying the company of several others. I doubt that this is still in current usage.

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