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History of gesture

Posted by Chris Yate on January 10, 2002

In Reply to: History of gesture posted by R. Berg on January 08, 2002

: : : : : : Where does the phrase "flipping someone the bird" come from?

: : : : : I couldn't find anything on the use of "bird" for finger in this phrase.

: : : : The following, from Eric Partridge's A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English may be relevant although it makes no mention of the hand gesture. To give someone the bird is "to dismiss [him], send him about his business . . . late C. 19-20. [From] the theatre . . . In Australia, 'give the bird' is to treat with derision: from before 1916."
: : : : In obsolete theatrical usage (Partridge gives a date of 1883), "the bird" is defined as "a hissing of an actor," from the sound made by geese.

: : : I'm wondering whether we can point the finger at Cockney rhyming slang again here... always a useful last resort. Could "bird" be rhyming slang for "third", as in third finger? Or is this too far-fetched?

: : Being far-fetched or not isn't an important criterion. Sometimes the correct explanation is less intuitively plausible than the incorrect ones. Maybe "bird" originated as rhyming slang, maybe not--what we need is some historical evidence.

: The Straight Dope has a column on the history of the gesture, which is ancient (use link below or www.straightdope.com/ classics/a980904.html) but doesn't explain its name.

The british variant two-fingered insult (index and middle fingers like Winston Churchill's V sign backwards) is supposed to indicate the shape of a woman's pubic region - perhaps it means the subject is a c**t or similar. Also the story about the french cutting off middle fingers (see straight dope article...) - in order that enemy (British) soldiers could not draw their longbows, seems more plausible if it was actually two fingers - i'm not sure if simply removing the middle finger would really impede archery that much.

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