Day 521: The Only Sign Language Most Of Us Know

originally published June 4, 2013

Astute readers of this site may have noticed that I often bring up traffic as the most basic example of the deplorable current nature of humanity. I say this living in Edmonton, a city that theoretically has a ‘rush-hour’ that would make most big-city residents chuckle as they would upon seeing a baby owl or one of those little teacup pigs. Our city has responded to such ridicule by deploying an elaborate cluster-squadron of road construction and astoundingly poor planning in order to ensure its citizens are exposed to just as much potential for road rage as folks who live in a bigger city.

I have plodded down an overpopulated 405 in Los Angeles and crawled zombie-like along the freeways in Chicago on a curiously busy Sunday afternoon; I know how aggravating real traffic can be. And while we’re all bundled in a steel-and-fiberglass bushel of a community, we tend to rely on one of three universal gestures to share our thoughts with our fellow humans: the thank-you wave (all too infrequently deployed), the shaken fist of frustration (also displayed as the “What the hell?” open-hand raise, and of course our dearest friend – the finger.

Oh, the finger. How I have longed these past 521 days to unfurl your secrets.

You probably aren’t aware – I certainly wasn’t – that when you stretch out that offensive digit whilst tucking its neighbors close to your palm, you are speaking a language older than English, borrowed from the golden age of philosophy and thought. The Ancient Greeks called it the katapugon. The finger itself was to represent the phallus, with the knobby knuckles meant to symbolize testicles (of which I assume Ancient Greeks either had three or else they simply ignored the pinky).

In Greek theatrical comedies, and no doubt in regular Greek interactions totally devoid of humor, the extended middle finger represented anal intercourse; the term ‘katapugon’ also refers to a man who submits to anal boinking. It quickly became the degrading, intimidating gesture we all know and love. In Aristophanes’ delightful romp Peace, which brought theatre audiences to their feet back in 421BC, the finger was used as an act of mockery, right alongside farting in one’s face. The Greeks were into some highbrow stuff.

While it’s been said that the flipped bird resembles the gesture made as knights raised their lances at one another back in those heady medieval days, a more clear connection can be made to the Hundred Years War in the fifteenth century. The story goes that French soldiers would capture their English enemies, then slice off the middle finger in order to prevent those soldiers from ever wielding a longbow. In an act of defiance, the snarky Brits would fire off a one-finger salute to taunt the French, assuming they hadn’t been captured and snipped yet.

I have read that the gesture can be very loosely tied to nature as well, to the way male squirrel monkeys and baboons gesture with an erect penis to warn of impending danger or to frighten away predators. That wouldn’t translate well into human communication, unless the message you’re trying to convey is, “There is danger coming, and I intend to sex it up!”

For a simple flick of a phalange, giving the finger has come to have a powerful effect on our culture. Above, if you really squint (or enlarge the photo on your screen – I keep forgetting I’m writing on a computer and not composing essays for the ages on sacred parchment), you can see Old Hoss Radbourn, pitcher for the Boston Beaneaters, flipping off a member of the New York Giants in 1886 – the first documented photo of the gesture.

When the USS Pueblo was captured by North Koreans in 1968, they tried to take a number of photos with their American prisoners. The Yanks flipped their middle fingers, telling the Koreans it was similar to the ‘hang loose’ Hawaiian symbol. That was a brilliant act of defiance, until the Koreans discovered the truth and unleashed some harsh punishment for the prank.

I don’t know if it’s the first middle-finger on film, but silent comedy star Harold Lloyd flipped his own reflection the bird in his last silent feature film, Speedy, in 1928.

Sometimes the gesture can backfire in a big way. I myself have caught my finger mid-stretch on those fortunate occasions when my saner self – the one that remembers that road rage can be a fatal affair – takes control. In 2010, a Malaysian man gave the finger to someone in traffic, and he was subsequently chased down by the other motorist and bludgeoned to death. A Pakistani man extended his unholy fingernail and got himself ejected from the United Arab Emirates for violating indecency codes.

A little closer to home, the courts have taken a milder approach to the extension of that bulkiest of glove-pocket fillers. In 1976, a Connecticut police officer charged a 16-year-old with making an obscene gesture for flipping the bird, but an Appellate Court in Hartford ruled that the gesture was offensive, not obscene. This climbed all the way to the state Supreme Court, where it was determined that the 16-year-old was not a criminal, and was merely an asshole.

While the middle finger works great as a means of political protest – Ricky Martin gave it to a photo of George W. Bush as a protest against the Iraq War, which single-handedly brought a swift end to the conflict – it can also fly back the other way. Ronald Reagan snapped it at protesters in Berkeley when he was Governor of California. Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau offered his lengthy poke-tool to protestors in Salmon Arm, British Columbia. Vice-President Nelson Rockefeller also displayed his central table-tapper to a group of hecklers in Birmingham, New York.

Relief pitcher Jose Paniagua endangered his career by bird-flipping an umpire, getting himself cut from the Chicago White Sox. Tennessee Titans owner Bud Adams was fined a quarter-million dollars for flipping off a stadium full of fans during a game. And when M.I.A. sprung forth his terrible tickler during a Super Bowl halftime show, he had to apologize publically, as did the NFL and NBC.

Heaven forbid, some innocent child bear witness to such a gesture and become corrupted. I’m all for taking way the power of the finger and allowing it on TV. Hasn’t its meaning been diluted by time and over-use? Does it really mean ‘fuck you’ now, or is it more an expression of ‘I can think of nothing else to do but use this finger to express my frustration, none of which has any impact on you anyway’?

Whatever. I still need to communicate something in traffic, and I’m not dexterous enough to flip my middle toe at a guy who cuts me off.

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