Here is a different take on the history of flipping the bird.
Giving someone "the finger" is one of the basest violations in modern culture, but its origins date back over 2500 years. The first written record of the insult occurred in ancient Greece, where the playwright Aristophanes (the Adam Sandler of his day) made a crude joke mixing up the middle finger and the penis. Even back then, the bird was considered an aggressive, phallic put-down.
It has been argued by anthropologists that the finger is a a variant of a classic "phallic aggressive" gesture used by primates. By jabbing a threatening phallus at your enemy like a wild animal, you aren't just belittling him, but also making him your sexual inferior. Instead of using a real penis, civilized Janes and Platos called upon the substitute wieners within their own hands to mock, threaten, and humiliate opponents.
And boy, did it. When the Romans imported the art, music, and culture of the Greeks, the finger came along, too. Roman Emperor Caligula, a pioneer in perversity, frequently shocked his citizens by forcing them to kiss his middle finger instead of his hand. One of his subjects, Cassius, who Caligula often taunted as being too effeminate, finally had enough humiliation and assassinated him. Clearly, the bird was not to be taken lightly.
During the Middle Ages, the finger went underground. It was still known, but the Catholic Church frowned upon its use, as the middle finger was supposed to be holy in the Mass. The unholy insult lurked deep within the hearts of filthy- minded folks everywhere, hiding from sight until the 19th century when it began to crop up again thanks to a new invention -photography.
In 1886, Hall of Fame baseball pitcher Charles "Old Hoss" Radbourn slipped his little finger fastball into the Boston Beaneaters team picture. The split-second art of photography could turn the once-boring painted portrait into a spontaneous work of rebellion, humor and spunk. Americans everywhere quickly got into the act.
Old Hoss Makes History With His Finger
In the polyglot, immigrant mish-mash of early 20th century America, the finger was the one symbol every man, woman and dog could understand. With the invention of the automobile, it could be delivered from behind the safety of glass & steel, and at great speeds. All the finger needs to deliver its punch is a clear line of sight. Check out THIS horizon line, baby!
Throughout the 20th century, the finger has penetrated all levels of society. Roughhewn farmers did it, hippies did it, and even the Vice President of the United States got into the act. At a campaign stop for Senator Bob Dole in 1976, Nelson Rockefeller was heckled by protesters telling him what they thought of his Vietnam war policy by casting their middle finger votes. Never one to back down, Rocky just flipped it right back.
The Old Testament contains several warnings about the evil of the digits. In Isaiah 58:9-10 it says, "If you remove the yoke from your midst, the pointing of the finger, and speaking wickedness, and if you give yourself to the hungry, and satisfy the desire of the afflicted, then your light will rise in darkness, and your gloom will become like midday;" indicating that a finger pointed with scorn is an act of which God disapproves.
Elsewhere, in Proverbs we find, "...A worthless person, a wicked man, goes about with crooked speech, winks with his eyes, scrapes with his feet, points with his finger, with perverted heart devises evil..." indicating that those who accuse others of wrongdoing only spread more evil, or that lecherous old men should just keep it in their pants. Unfortunately, because the Bible doesn't specify exactly which finger is the source of all evil, it's impossible for us to know if we are damned. That's might just be wishful thinking though. It might be safe to assume God hates The Finger.
In 1644, John Bulwer wrote Chirologica: of the Naturall Language of the Hande as a guide to common hand signals for the deaf. The finger, or convicium facio (meaning, I provoke an argument) was a "natural expression of scorn and contempt." Although he thought it was horrid to use, the deaf might have had no better way to express themselves after someone dumped the contents of a chamber pot on them in the street.
Considering the Vice-president of the USA could flip off with impunity, it is no surprise that only a few months later, an appellate court in Connecticut ruled the finger was not legally obscene, releasing it from its gilded cage.
t the dawn of a new millennium, we can rest assured this once endangered bird is thriving. Today it appears in films ("Titanic"), books (Elizabeth Wurtzel's "Bitch"), school yards, and most recently, network television (on "NYPD Blue"). Instead of shunning this "obscene" gesture, we must treasure its rich cultural heritage. We are living in the Golden Age of The Finger. Get used to it.
Astronomer Galileo's meticulously preserved middle finger can be seen today in Italy's Museo di Storia del Scienza. The famous astronomer's appendage was plucked from his dead body by a souvenir-seeking Anton Francesco Gori in 1737. Gori detached this prize while moving the body from an undignified storage closet to a nearby chapel. Isn't it fitting that Galileo is still giving 'the finger' to all those who doubted his proofs of Copernicus' theory that the sun was the center of the galaxy?
[NOTE: A much more detailed history--and the answer to the question, "WHY DO THEY CALL IT 'THE BIRD?", appears in the book
THE FINGER: A COMPREHENSIVE GUIDE TO FLIPPING OFF]
Ole hoss makes history.