The middle finger is one of our species' oldest and most ubiquitous insulting gestures. But why is waving one of your fingers offensive? David Clark answered this question for us back in 2009, and we're reposting it today in honor of a one-finger salute that aired on MSNBC this morning.
The Middle Finger
Like the Devil Himself, the middle finger bears many names and adopts many guises. There's the "single-digit salute" favored by punk rockers and rebellious celebrities. Or the "expressway digit," a remarkable single-sign code by which California drivers communicate their complex emotions. It's also known as "the bird," a poor symbolic avian that is endlessly flipped and flicked. It can be displayed statically, waggling and waving, thrusting with rage, or drooping dispassionately from the hand of a rapper.
Long before punk rock and eight-lane highways, the middle finger was known as the digitus impudicus or digitus infamis (indecent or infamous digit) by Romans and medieval Europeans. Augustus Caesar once booted an entertainer for giving a heckler the finger. And the lunatic emperor Caligula -- famed for such crimes as wearing women's clothes and murdering indiscriminately -- was said to have habitually offered his digitus infamis to be kissed by his enemies, just to flaunt his imperial disdain. Until, of course, one of those enemies stabbed Caligula in the neck.
Here's what you can do with your Socratic method...
Even before the Romans, an Athenian playwright and comedian named Aristophanes created a feisty character who gives Socrates the finger. It was a unique way to respond to all those irritating questions. Nobody can say Socrates didn't ask for it.
There are no convincing claims about the primordial "meaning" of the middle finger or the origin of its disrepute, except that when it's stuck up alone it resembles a penis. (Some consider the fist below to serve an essential role in this resemblance to genitals.) I guess people think that's answer enough, since everyone's supposed to know already what a penis "means," and it's supposed to be bad.
Arab and Russian variations
Aristophanes might provide the earliest literary reference to the gesture, but that's no reason to think he came up with it, or that the middle finger was offensive only to Greeks. The finger is somewhat universal, and yet, as with most things, different regions have their own variations: two of the most enriching, I think, are from the Arabs and the Russians. In Arabian lands, the equivalent gesture consists of an outstretched hand, palm down, with all fingers splayed except the middle, which sticks downwards. Perhaps it's a little more ambiguous than the standard American finger, but I find it wonderfully evocative. The Russian version twists our anatomical expectations by bending the middle finger of one hand back with the forefinger of the other in a gesture they call "looking under the cat's tail." Few offensive hand-signs attain such splendid specificity.