Yesterday, Michelle of South Africa spoke of the danger involved in “raising a finger in a traffic jam.”
This in turn led to a number of comments about digital communication in various circumstances. I asked if she had seen the story that circulated around the internet several years ago concerning the origin of that particular gesture.
She and others indicated they hadn’t—or didn’t remember—so as a public service I will provide it in this space below.
The Story Of The Finger
In the recent film, Titanic, the character Rose is shown giving the finger to Jack (another character). Many people who have seen the film, question whether "giving the finger" was done around the time of the Titanic disaster, or was it a more recent gesture invented by some defiant seventh-grader.
According to research, here's the true story:
Giving the Finger
Before the Battle of Agincourt in 1415, the French, anticipating victory over the English, proposed to cut off the middle finger of all captured English soldiers. Without the middle finger it would be impossible to draw the renowned English longbow and therefore the soldiers would be incapable of fighting in the future. This famous weapon was made of the native English Yew tree, and the act of drawing the longbow was known as "plucking the yew" (or "pluck yew").
Much to the bewilderment of the French, the English won a major upset and began mocking the French by waving their middle fingers at the defeated French, saying, "See, we can still pluck yew!
Over the years some 'folk etymologies' have grown up around this symbolic gesture. Since 'pluck yew' is rather difficult to say (like "pleasant mother pheasant plucker", (which is who you had to go to for the feathers used on the arrows for the longbow), the difficult consonant cluster at the beginning has gradually changed to a labiodental fricative 'F', and thus the words often used in conjunction with the one-finger-salute are mistakenly thought to have something to do with an intimate encounter.
It is also because of the pheasant feathers on the arrows that the symbol or gesture is known as "giving the bird".
And yew all thought yew knew everything!
So there you have it. I’m glad to have set the record straight and informed all of you who may have thought there was some other origin to both the gesture and the connotation.
As an English major, I always enjoy discourses on word origins.