The other day I was watching the new version of ‘IT’, the film about a psycho clown/weird-ass shape-shifting monster/alien terrorising and killing teens in small-town America whilst touting his ‘we all float down here’ catchphrase with aplomb. To my mind it’s not as good as the Tim Curry, John Boy Walton made for TV mini-series back in 1990 but it does benefit a great deal from modern SFX because some of the stuff in the older version was very ‘Thunderbirds’ and ‘Morph’. However, this time around I was rooting for the clown (not in the Aussie sense of the word) to kill the aggravating, unpleasant young cast off a.s.a.p. so I could go and do something else more worthwhile with my ever-shortening life.
To show how disengaged I was, in one scene I noticed one particularly annoying kid, the one I really wanted Pennywise to rip a new balloon hole, flip the double bird to one of his colleagues and it caused a slight psychotic episode in me somewhat. As my attention drifted away from the flickering screen of HD boredom going on I began to wonder, ‘This middle finger malarkey, when did it take hold of this septic isle?’
Back in my days of youthfulness, the accepted sign of disapproval was the ‘Vs’ or the ‘Ups’; two fingers, index and middle, spread as far apart as possible and forcefully thrust upwards in the face of the recipient of your displeasure. No one ever waved a limp, lazily constructed middle finger across the playground, it just wasn’t done. It wasn’t a thing.
So when did this ridiculous American import hit our shores? My guess was the mid to late 80s but I decided, for the sake of you, the good readers of TBP, to do some research…and was I about to get educated. (I would have said schooled but that’s an Americanism too far…just like the overuse of that terrible ‘A’ word. Pack it in, all of ya, nothing is ever that impressive…unless you meet a god.) Here is what I learned and please excuse me if you know all this already but you must bear in mind I am holding up two fingers in your direction to show I care not about such things.
The raising of the middle finger goes way back into antiquity, Ancient Rome way back, and represents…I don’t know how to put this delicately, so I won’t…the male genitalia. The raised middle finger being the erect penis and the curled digits on either side being the testicles. Obviously, if you have one ball bigger than the other, adjustments can be made by raising either the ring finger or index finger depending on the lean of your imbalance. This gesticulation also has a Latin name to prove it is proper Spartacus stuff, ‘Digitus Impudicus’ and I don’t know about you but that sounds pretty cool to me…not as cool as ‘Bigus Diccus’ or ‘Incontinetia Buttucus’ but pretty cool nonetheless.
(Having gathered this information I am now wondering if there is a female equivalent of this gesture; one that signifies the differing mechanical equipment women are armed with? Or are women just more mature than men and why you don’t seem as many vaginas as penises drawn on bus shelters?)
Armed with the understanding of the representative form of this Caesar sign language it explains why it means what it does; we all knew or sensed it was ‘Fuck You’ on some level, now we can look at that raised finger with a little more disgust and hurt. I suppose we should be grateful the creative Romans came up with this shorthand version and refrained from simply hoisting their togas to reveal the originating appendage in all its glory, or not, instead. Imagine how many trackie bottoms would be getting dropped in pubs all over the land every day of the week if that inventive thinking hadn’t happened.
So despite ‘flipping the bird’ appearing, to me at least, as American as apple pie and indiscriminate gunfire, it is, in fact, an import from Europe as far as can be ascertained. My history isn’t that accurate, I sometimes have trouble knowing what day it is let alone conjuring up the correct order of past times but I’m pretty sure we, the Brits, should have got the finger off Rome long before the New World, mainly because of the fact that continent didn’t exist or was ruled by dinosaurs or something when the Romans were kicking everyone’s heads in. If that is the case, why did I never see digitus impudicus when I was a kid but the old Harvey Smiths (some research homework for you young ‘uns) were being thrown around betwixt people everywhere?
The ‘Fuck Off’ V fingers are allegedly traced back to the battle of Agincourt when it was common practice for the French to cut off the two fingers nearest the thumb of captured British archers so they could no longer draw back the strings of their bows. As a taunt toward the French, British bowmen on the battlefield would wave their two fingers defiantly in the air suggesting the snail-breathed Gauls should come and take them if they dare. Some say they would also shout ‘Pluck Yew’ as they did so…but that could be just some second-rate hack trying to get two terrible puns into a sentence, the wood of the yew tree being the favoured material for British longbows and pluck because…well, that’s obvious.
Sadly, although still commonly used in the pubs across the land as an explanation for the meaning behind the V fingers, the above has been pretty well dismissed as poppycock* by all serious historians although many of the frivolous historians still stand by it. Whatever the truth, it still looks like the middle finger pre-dates its duet performing cousin by a good long way so its absence from these shores for so long, and all of my childhood, still confuses me.
Churchill famously used the V sign throughout WWII as a sign for ‘Victory’, yet there are pictures and film of him using it both ways round, palm facing and palm away from the ‘receiver’. It is said that he was ignorant of the meaning other than ‘Victory’ and an advisor had to tell him regarding the mistake he was making when he once told the whole British Pacific Fleet to ‘Fuck Off’ as it set sail from Plymouth. I’m not so sure about that, Winston comes across as a proper man of the world, he knew what he was doing; he was from aristocratic stock and so illustrating to the peasants the contempt he held them in would not be beyond his genetic calling.
It appears I was totally wrong about the chronology of the middle finger salute and about the direction from whence it came to land on these shores but it hasn’t stopped me disliking its lazy, slack composition and dominance in today’s society. The Vs are so much more aesthetically pleasing, requiring twice the effort to perform and often come with more passion as an extension to a purposefully raised arm. Yes, we know the single digit sign represents a nob and balls and that gives it an authentic insult value whereas the origins of the Vs’ rudeness seem lost in the mists of mystery and was (and is possibly still) hardly understood as an inflammatory gesture outside of the UK and Commonwealth or wherever large numbers of ex-pats dwell. Maybe it represents the ‘Rabbit’, though I suppose even the Vs predate that essential modern accessory to a bedside cabinet.
The thing is, I suggest we all make an effort to bring back the use of the Vs, it’s a tradition that is quickly losing its foothold as we all flick half-hearted single digit rebukes at each other whilst supping on our Choca-Mocha-Knocha-Lattes. Brew yourself a strong cup of PG, lob in ten sugars and the next time someone pisses you off stand proud and make that extra effort to let your index finger reform the irrepressible double act that was such a part of my playground days. And if you refuse to do so you can all V off as far as I’m concerned.
*Another word that must have history, though I dread to think what it is. Could you really slide a poppy down a…never mind, the image is too disturbing.