(NOTE: These posts are not appearing as frequently as I would like because of time spent on my book and because they occassionally – as with this post – take a lot of time in research.)
(This piece was prompted by bird flippage observed in the Super Bowl halftime show.)
Extending the middle finger as an insulting gesture – “giving the finger,” “flipping the bird” – seems as American as apple pie, but in fact it has a long history, stretching at least as far back as the Greeks. This is hardly surprising since all humans have hands with five digits and half of them have a penis, and it seems likely the obvious phallic symbolism of sticking up the middle digit would occur to any culture.
In Aristophanes’ (c.455-386 BC) comedy Clouds (l. 1023) Right Logic refers to someone as filled with καταπυγοσύνης – “unnatural lust” in polite academic language, more accurately “desire for anal sex.” In his Onomasticon (2.184) Iulius Pollus (2nd cent. AD) says that in Attic Greek καταπύγονα, another form of the word, specifically meant a gesture with the middle finger, which dovetails nicely with the use in Aristophanes. Elsewhere in Clouds (ll. 649-654) Aristophanes puns on the word δάκτυλος, which can mean both “dactylic,” a Greek poetic rhythm, and “finger,” and while it is not explicit, the joke only makes sense if Strepsiades is referring to his johnson when he says “this,” which suggests that his earlier finger reference is to the middle finger. In Peace (l. 549) Aristophanes uses the verb σκιμαλίζω – “jeer at,” “flout” – but the scholiast on this line adds “to hold up the middle finger.”
And on to the Romans. In Latin the expression is quite clear: digitus impudicus or digitus infamis may stand in for digitus medius. One of Martial’s (AD c.40-c.101) epigrams (6.70.5) sports the line: Ostendet digitum, sed impudicum, which is pretty much Latin for “flip the bird.” In his Life of the Divine Augustus (45.4) Suetonius (AD c.70-c.130) relates that the emperor banished from Italy the actor Pylades because demonstrasset digito at a spectator who was hissing him. Since simply pointing at a member of the audience was hardly a crime, the digitus used could only have been the infamis – the middle finger. Also frequently cited is Suetonius’ Life of Caligula (56.2), where the emperor insults a member of the Praetorian guard by offering his hand to kiss, formatam commotamque in obscaenum modum, but this means “formed and moved in an obscene fashion,” which could indicated all sorts of things.
And you thought classics was boring! Well, it certainly used to be a lot more stuffy, and early translations of Aristophanes, whose plays are filled with stuff modern society considers obscene, featured a great deal of mistranslation in the quest to keep the classics pristine and edifying. Earlier editions of the Loeb Classical Library, a favorite with students because they feature Latin or Greek on one page and the translation on the facing page, often had a sequence of pages with no translation at all, an indicator that these were indeed the good parts. In fact the Romans and especially the Greeks were nowhere near as prudish as we with our No Fun God and found human sexuality and bodily functions a huge source of humor.
So, the next time you flip somebody off remember that you are continuing a proud tradition that goes back more than two millennia.