"I couldn't give a fig"

Posted by Victoria S Dennis on April 14, 2006

In Reply to: "I couldn't give a fig" posted by Smokey Stover on April 14, 2006

: : : : : "I couldn't give a fig" - where does this come from, and why figs?

: : : : If you don't care a pickle or a fig, you may grow up to be a pig. Stifle that temptation to see "fig" in this phrase as a euphemism for another word that starts with the same letter. The OED has this: ". a. As a type of anything small, valueless, or contemptible; also, a dried fig; a fig's end. In phrases: never a fig = not at all; (to bid, care, give) a fig, or fig's end for; to mind, value (a person or thing), be worth a fig or fig's end." This usage of fig goes back to the earliest days of modern English (or the end of Middle English). To care a fig is to care almost nothing; not to care a fig, or give a fig, is to care nothing at all. SS

: : : The saying is based on the Spanish Fico (= Fig) which gave its name to a traditional gesture of contempt made by placing the thumb between the first and second fingers. The gesture was common in Shakespeare's time and was known as The Fig of Spain. The modern-day equivalent, at least in the UK, is the "V" sign.

: : JB's post is nearly correct, as far as it goes; but the full explanation is a bit more complicated, and ruder, than that. Making the Fig of Spain is called in Spanish "dar una higa". But the Spanish for "fig" is "not "higa" but "higo". There is a pun here, because "higa" means the female genitals - which is what the thumb peeping out between the fingers of the closed fist is meant to represent. Exactly the same gesture and phrase occur in Italy: Italians call making the gesture "far fica", but in polite speech it is bowdlerised to "fico", fig, as in "Non vale un fico" (it's not worth a fig). Polite Spaniards also bowdlerise it, as in "non darsele un higo" (not to care a fig)

: Ah, puzzles, puzzles. Just a note on Italian gestures. "The Mano Fico (fig hand) is an ancient obscene gesture, and is also one of the better known protective gestures against the eye. The thumb and fist gesture is an ancient representation of sexual union. The name is from the Italian word for the female vulva, fica, meaning fig (and also the origin of an english obscenity). The fig was associated by the romans with female fertility and eroticism; the fruit was sacred to Bacchus.

: The gesture is used against the evil eye in the belief that an obscenity serves as a distraction to evil."

: In Italian, virtually all tree fruits are designated by a feminine noun, the tree itself by a masculine noun: mela, melo (apple); cililegia, cililegio (cherry); pesca, pesco (peach), and so on, including the medlar, about which more anon. Why then do virtually all Italian dictionaries use "fico" for both fruit and tree? An answer suggests itself, but I don't really know.

: A more puzzling puzzle is how the English knew so much about the fig, as early as 1400. It is a fruit not native to England and grows there only in greenhouses (or hothouses). It's hard to imagine that figs were abundant enough to be a symbol for worthlessness. It's equally hard to imagine that the English used any indecent expressions based on the fig before Elizabethan times, when there was a vogue for all things Italian. As for the two-fingered salute, what became of the thumb? The Italian gesture is not a backwards V for Victory.

: Which reminds me that when Americans give the finger, it is only one finger. The two-finger salute given by the people George Bush calls "the Great British" looks to most Americans as some form of the V for Victory, or perhaps, "I'll take two." When Spike, the British vampire in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, gives the two-finger salute I think many of the American viewers were perplexed. Actually, I'm a bit perplexed myself. With the thumb missing, there's no suggestion of giving the fig.

: Another expression whose origin is not immediately apparent to me is "in full fig," which I be lieve used to be used by those pesky Great Britishers.

: I promised a note on the medlar, a fruit with a somewhat suggestive shape, and which has to start getting rotten before it's edible. As per the OED: "Medlar (named by Chaucer, e.g.) 3. slang. {dag}a. The female genitals. Also: a prostitute; a disreputable woman. Cf. also quot. a1627 at medlar tree, sense 4. Obs.
: In some quots. (e.g. a1618) probably also with punning allusion to MEDDLER n.
: [1607 G. CHAPMAN Bussy d'Ambois III. 38 Char. We be no windfals my Lord; ye must gather vs with the ladder of matrimony, or we'l hang till we be rotten. Mons. Indeed that's the way to make ye right openarses... Farewell riddle. Gui. Farewell Medlar.] a1616 SHAKESPEARE Meas. for M. IV. iii. 167 They would..haue married me to the rotten Medler."
: It will not have escaped you that the shape of the medlar suggests, at least to some British writers, not only the appearance of the female pudenda, but also of what is called above "openarses." SS

: I don't think the English were that familiar with the fig, as the word was also applied vaguely to dried fruit in general (as in figgy pudding and Cornish figgy 'obbin, neither of which routinely contains figs, but rather lots of currants and/or raisins).

"Full fig", which this Englishwoman at least still uses, is nothing to do with fruit but is apparently from the verb "feague", meaning "to dress, to doll oneself up".

There's no doubt that when Churchill invented the V for Victory gesture he meant it to be nearly-but-not-quite the rude two-fingered salute all British people were familiar with. Well-brought-up people didn't admit it but everyone knew that when they made the gesture they were giving two fingers to Hitler.