A Finger to Insult Everyone

Article published on June 22, 2014
Article published on June 22, 2014

There are times when words aren't enough. Times when a sim­ple ges­ture can sum­ma­rise a mood, whether it be joy or anger. Those mo­ments when rea­son, or it's frame­work, com­pletely van­ishes to un­leash a merry-go-round of non-ver­bal lan­guage. It is in those mo­ments when rais­ing a fin­ger, specif­i­cally the one in the mid­dle, can det­o­nate a bomb.

We've seen them go crazy on any old soc­cer field, stir­ring up their pompous rival or si­lenc­ing the most ar­dent crit­ics. We've seen them try­ing to ex­press re­bel­lion, gui­tar in hand. We've also seen them with a fake smile em­bed­ded in their jaw, re­ply­ing with cyn­i­cism to the crit­i­cisms of a rag­ing crowd. Oth­ers sim­ply used it as an ob­ject to be im­mor­tal­ised, through an image that, with­out such an ac­tion, wouldn't have any great im­por­tance. It's as easy as rais­ing your mid­dle fin­ger, clos­ing your fist and stretch­ing out your arm. A straight­for­ward ges­ture to cap­ture the media focus and be of­fered up like candy to the judg­ment of the ever-greedy, pub­lic eye.

The Spaniards call flip­ping the bird, "mak­ing a comb". But the thing is long-stand­ing, long be­fore soc­cer balls rolled and celebri­ties got high. The first ref­er­ence to the stretch­ing of the mid­dle fin­ger as an act of dis­dain is in The Clouds, a com­edy by Aristo­phanes in the year 423 BC. The Ro­mans, a lit­tle later, dubbed it 'dig­i­tus im­pu­di­cus' ('in­de­cent fin­ger'), a name that was wide­spread from the 1st cen­tury on­wards in Mediter­ranean cul­tures. Al­though for the lat­ter, the ac­tion was no more than a method to di­vert the evil eye. A very dif­fer­ent use than the cur­rent one.

Re­gard­less of the his­tory, the fact is that the Latin ex­pres­sion is im­prac­ti­cal for con­tem­po­rary use. It's prob­a­ble that if we rep­ri­mand some­one for the lack of suit­abil­ity of mak­ing use of their 'dig­i­tus im­pu­di­cus', they'd feel the same guilt as if we called them a slob in Ara­maic. That's why, it's some­times re­ally in­ter­est­ing to know what this ac­tion is re­ferred to in dif­fer­ent cor­ners of the Eu­ro­pean con­ti­nent. Nec­es­sary and, at the very least, use­ful in­for­ma­tion.

The French, show­ing off their keen sense of irony, call the mid­dle fin­ger 'le doight d'hon­neur' ('the fin­ger of ho­n­our'), de­spite the ges­ture hav­ing very lit­tle to do with ho­n­our. But their Ger­man neigh­bours drop es­cha­tol­ogy and ex­plore the world of feces with their 'stinkefin­ger'. In other words, the 'stinky fin­ger'. In Italy and Poland, they opt for a frus­trat­ingly de­scrip­tive name, aka call­ing some­thing by it's ac­tual name. So, the 'dito medio' and 'środ­kowy palec' won't have any other trans­la­tion be­sides 'mid­dle fin­ger'. But the Eng­lish make use of metonymy. For them, the ges­tural in­sult, and all that it im­plies, can be sum­ma­rised in one ex­trem­ity: the fin­ger.

Dif­fer­ent ways to call a fin­ger. A fin­ger to in­sult every­one.