Flipping the bird, flicking someone off, giving the finger -- we’re all guilty of throwing our middle fingers in the air at one point or another. Whether it’s all in good fun with some funny friends or a reaction to some moron on the highway who cut you off, it’s the universal sign for, “Screw you!” (or, you know, the more expletive response).
The gesture is a bit indecent, tasteless and inappropriate in most settings, but there has to be a reason why. It’s just a finger like any other! Some people even use their middle finger instead of their index to simply point -- but it always looks weird, right? The bird finger is supposed to be exclusively rude; it’s meant to insult.
Flipping a middle finger -- with your thumb tucked, as opposed to sticking out, which has become the more popular iteration -- goes back to the ancient Greeks (like, 400 B.C. ancient), who thought the gesture looked phallic, and thus offensive.
“It is saying, ‘this is a phallus’ that you're offering to people, which is a very primeval display,” anthropologist Desmond Morris told the BBC. In Aristphanes’ “The Clouds,” Socrates himself was given the finger!
It was basically dudes having a pissing contest. Is anyone shocked that men’s egos have been huge since the beginning of time?
The Romans, too, used the gesture and called it “digitus impudicus,” the “indecent finger.”
In its earliest representations, then, flipping the middle finger was supposed to be vulgar and lewd, which was the best way to insult someone in the earliest days of the world. The gesture fell out of favor during the Middle Ages, because Christianity was so taken aback by the idea, but it made its way to America eventually. Now, it’s not supposed to be obscene anymore, per se, just a little disrespectful.
For example, the first documented case of someone being flicked off in the United States was 1886, when Charles “Old Hoss” Radbourn of the Boston Beaneaters (the team that went on to become the Boston and now Atlanta Braves) held up a middle finger in a photograph with the New York Giants. Radbourn wasn’t being crude, he was just being a douche. I have to say, I’m not not proud that one of the middle finger’s first uses in the U.S. was by Bostonians toward a New York sports team.
But in Shakespeare’s time, biting your thumb was even worse than a middle finger. Remember, that’s how a bunch of fighting started in “Romeo and Juliet”?
Honestly, if we were to suddenly decide that lifting a knee up was offensive, then it would be offensive. Everything's subjective, but this specific gesture definitely has some crass history. Use sparingly!