If you’ve ever “flipped the bird,” you have something in common with ancient Greeks.
It was around 2,500 years ago that the naughty Greeks developed a phallic gesture to offend, taunt and literally poke each other. While throwing up a middle finger today clearly communicates a resounding “f**k you,” in classical society, historians say a middle finger was more of a ribald sexual reference.
The middle finger has since become a frequently used emoji, an unintentional guest during a Super Bowl halftime show, a surprise live sign-off on the BBC and a crude gesture wielded by angry motorists. Here’s how it became the human hand’s most obscene digit.
The middle finger originated as a phallic gesture
The cheeky Greeks “probably relied on the use of the middle finger to represent an erect penis,” wrote Max Nelson, who teaches courses on classical civilizations at the University of Windsor in Ontario, Canada, in a 2017 piece on the gesture’s origins.
Proudly displaying a middle finger was usually a joke, an insult or a sexual proposition, Nelson and other classical researchers posit. A few sources from ancient Greece reference middle fingers being used to prod or poke people’s persons, from nostrils to, well, nethers.
The Greek playwright Aristophanes was also purportedly a fan of the gesture, referring to “the long finger” in several of his plays.
In his comedy “The Clouds,” written in 419 B.C., a caricature of Socrates attempts to instruct the debtor Strepsiades about poetic meter. Strepsiades makes a crude joke about using a different finger to create rhythm. Translators of the text usually conclude that Strepsiades gesticulates with his middle finger (or, in some translations, reveals his privates) to refer to masturbation, said Nelson. Whatever the intent, the Socrates character responds with disgust.
The gesture eventually made its way to ancient Rome, where locals likely called it “digitus impudicus” – the indecent digit. The Roman historian Suetonius reported that the emperor Caligula forced his subjects to kiss his middle finger – per anthropologist and leading middle-finger historian Desmond Morris, this was a demeaning gesture that represented the ruler’s member.
Morris has said that the middle finger we know today – the digit hoisted high in the air, other fingers bending to its will – represents a penis and testicles.
“It is saying, this is a phallus that you’re offering to people, which is a very primeval display,” Morris told BBC in 2012.
It’s not clear, though, whether the ancient Greeks and Romans extended their middle fingers vertically in the air. Nelson wrote that while ancient people did likely use their middle fingers to make obscene gestures, they may have pointed them horizontally or in other directions – a bit different from the typical “finger” we know today.
“In the end then it is perhaps best to keep ‘the finger’ to ourselves,” Nelson wrote.
‘Flipping the bird’ is perhaps even more offensive today
The middle finger’s popularity faltered, but did not entirely disappear, during the Middle Ages, likely due to the growing influence of the Catholic Church and its disapproval of sexual gestures, researchers have concluded. Morris has said that the middle finger landed in the US with Italian immigrants in the late 19th century.
The “finger” didn’t become the “bird” until the 1960s, writer Brian Palmer reported for Slate. Birds had apparently been synonymous with taunting long before the mid-20th century. When the middle finger’s popularity grew once more, it became known as a wordless version of the goose-like honks and hisses of displeasure preferred by Brits and other Europeans.
It’s since become a beloved gesture for anti-authority rebels. Johnny Cash flashed a defiant middle finger during a 1969 performance at San Quentin State Prison in California after a photographer reportedly asked him what he thought of the prison warden. (It wasn’t Cash’s first performance at a Golden State prison.)
Anti-establishment artists from Joe Strummer of The Clash to Tupac Shakur have pointed a middle finger at the ruling class in their work — and, in famous photos, literally.
But the “bird” is also a sign of someone reaching their breaking point.
Today, “flipping the bird” is considered so vulgar (it does represent the f-bomb, after all) that it’s frequently blurred in media and even sent the BBC into a tailspin when one of its presenters unknowingly pointed it towards viewers during a live broadcast.
And in 2012, a middle finger sent “Paper Planes” performer M.I.A. to arbitration. The singer appeared during Madonna’s Super Bowl Halftime Show and flexed her middle finger toward the camera, prompting the NFL and NBC to apologize. The NFL asked for $16.6 million in damages from M.I.A., claiming she breached her contract and sullied the league’s reputation. M.I.A. settled over two years later, though she never apologized.
In defense of her performance, she and Madonna were wearing leather studded skirts similar to the garments Roman gladiators assumedly wore into battle. Maybe M.I.A. was just keeping it classical.