They don’t stay young and innocent forever, do they?
Since he was three, my son has had this habit of pointing at things with his middle finger instead of his index finger. Seriously, he’ll say “look at the bunny!” and point with his middle finger. For what are most likely obvious reasons, my wife and I have worked hard on trying to break him of that habit. And, for the most part, we’ve succeeded.
But he’s been putting two and two together.
Recently, he was telling me about how he saw a giant middle finger in… Roblox, I think. Or, maybe, in Minecraft. He said it wasn’t nice, and he and his friend went somewhere else in the game. But then, after a pause, he looked at me. “Why is the middle finger bad?”
Hoo boy. “It’s not bad,” I tell him. “But some people use it as a sign language way of saying a bad word.” I was quite proud of that, honestly. He knows about “bad words”, and he knows what sign language is, and I could see that it made sense to him.
He fell silent, thinking. Then, hesitantly, he holds up his hand so his fingers are all pointing up. “Then,” he asks, “why is this all right? My middle finger’s up!”
Well. I assume there’s going to be some tap dancing around vocabulary?
Sort of. I’m trying to keep this blog as family-friendly as possible, so I’m not going to just type out what the middle finger means. If you’re reading this, you probably already know. If you don’t, then it’s a rude hand gesture representing a rude four-letter word. The first time I remember seeing it, I was in second grade and I saw a middle schooler make the gesture. So I asked my mom what it meant to put your middle finger up, and she said it was a way to tell someone else to go have sex.
That made no sense to me, at the time. And honestly, as far as crude insults go, it’s still pretty nonsensical if you think about it. But still, we’re not here to pass judgement on slang and profanity. We’re here to talk about flashing someone “the finger” is considered profanity.
Sure. So. Why is considered profanity?
Well, to be blunt, because it’s symbolic of an erect penis.
No, no, more so than you think! Mental Floss, the BBC, and Wikipedia all agree on this one. It represents an erect penis, it’s insulting, and it’s a long, long way from being a new thing. The oldest known reference to “giving someone the finger” is from Aristophanes’ play The Clouds, written around 423 BCE:
SOCRATES: First they will help you to be pleasant in company, then to know what is meant by enhoplian rhythm and what by the dactylic.
STREPSIADES: Of the dactyl? I know that quite well.
SOCRATES: What is it then, other than this finger here?
STREPSIADES: [He sticks out his middle finger.) Formerly, when a child, I used this one.
SOCRATES: You are as low-minded as you are stupid.
That’s not clear from the English translation, but the footnotes of The Clouds: An Annotated Translation make it pretty clear that this is a masturbation joke. Here’s the relevant footnotes:
62. Measures, words and rhythms have a different meaning for Strepsiades and Socrates. To the ordinary citizen, measures are associated with capacity and not with poetic measure. Words are distinguished gramatically by genders, but Strepsiades does not know the correct usage of grammar. Finally, Socrates refers to musical rhythms of qualitative measures.
63. Socrates means the iambic trimeter (the meter of the dialogue in tragedy and comedy) and trochaic tetrameter (used mostly in comedy but also at times in tragedy).
64. In Greek dactylos means both “finger” and “dactyl=metrical foot.”
So, yeah. Aristophanes wrote a scene specifically to give Socrates the bird and make him talk about masturbation. I suspect that he didn’t care for the philosopher much. But it’s even clearer than that, because the Greeks called the gesture katapygon, from kata- “downwards’ and puge-, “rump, buttocks”- with the meaning of “a male who submits to anal penetration”. (Women weren’t spared, either. The feminine form of the word is katapygaina and pretty much means the same thing.)
The Romans, who were obsessed with penises (to the point that grabbing your penis was a way to prevent the Evil Eye from affecting you), called the middle finger the digitus impudicus (indecent digit) and the digitus infamis (infamous digit). It’s claimed that the Emperor Caligula went as far as to make his political enemies kiss his digitus infamis, right up until he was stabbed. By a bunch of people. Because, although that particular story may be fictional, Caligula was a bad, bad man and nobody liked him.
So there you are. If you flip someone the bird, you’re participating in a ritual that is at least two and a half milennia old. But antiquity has not put a gloss of respectability on this particular survivor of the Classical past. However, keeping up tradition, you might get stabbed over it.