Madonna was upstaged at her own Super Bowl halftime show Sunday when guest performer M.I.A. extended her middle finger at the camera. When did we start calling this gesture “flipping the bird?”
In the 1960s. Birds have a long association with taunting. English audiences have expressed their dissatisfaction by hooting like owls or hissing like threatened geese for more than 700 years. In the final speech of Troilus and Cressida, Pandarus confesses that “my fear is this, some galled goose of Winchester would hiss.” The practice was so common by the early 19th century that Englishmen were using goose as a verb. By the middle of that century, goose generalized to bird, but it was still limited to vocal jeering. The phrase “flip the bird,” referring specifically to the one-fingered salute, arose in the 1960s.
The obscene gesture itself is far older than that, though. As many writers have pointed out, the middle finger became a symbol of the penis at least 2,500 years ago. In Aristophanes’ 423 B.C.E. play The Clouds, the character Strepsiades jokes that when he was a boy he kept time by tapping his phallus rather than his middle finger. If showing someone the middle finger wasn’t already a common insult at that time, it became one within the next century. The Greek philosopher Diogenes showed his middle finger as a sign of disrespect to the orator Demosthenes in the fourth century B.C.E. (The ancient Greeks also associated the penis with birds, although there’s no evidence that they ever referred to the middle finger itself as a bird or showing it to someone as “flipping the bird.”) The ancient Romans called the middle finger digitus impudicus, or the impudent finger. In a show of superiority, eccentric Roman Emperor Caligula made senators kneel and kiss his middle finger, which was understood to represent his phallus. The middle finger gesture fell out of favor during the Middle Ages, likely because the Catholic Church disapproved of its sexual suggestiveness. The earliest known use of the bird in the New World didn’t come until 1886, when a pitcher for the Boston Beaneaters flashed his middle finger in a team photo.
In Afghanistan, Iran, and a few other countries, the thumb, rather than the middle finger, represents the phallus. Flashing a thumbs-up to an Afghan with no exposure to Western habits is the equivalent of flipping him the bird.
It’s not yet clear whether the FCC will prosecute NBC for the obscene gesture. The FCC has never explicitly banned the finger from television broadcasts, but stations typically pixelate the finger rather than test the agency. That’s probably a wise choice, given recent history. Fox received complaints from viewers who believed former American Idol host Simon Cowell scratched his cheek with his middle finger as a covert obscene gesture.
Local, state, and federal authorities have a long history of prosecuting bird flippers, as detailed by law professor Ira Robbins in a 2008 paper (PDF). Flipping off a police officer seems to be a surefire way of getting arrested, but giving the finger to a fellow civilian may also suffice. Police have arrested a garbage truck operator for flipping off his colleagues in public, as well as a woman who showed her middle finger to another driver. Higher courts usually reverse middle finger convictions on appeal, because the gesture is a protected form of speech under most circumstances.
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Explainer thanks Jesse Sheidlower of the Oxford English Dictionary and author of The F Word, and Ben Zimmer of the Visual Thesaurus.