The Middle Finger: A Brief History

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Last night, Anthony Weiner ended his disastrous run for mayor with a crude gesture at a reporter. Political wisdom of the act aside, it turns out that raising the middle finger — flipping the bird, as it's commonly known — has a surprisingly complex history.

The gesture is ubiquitous, but where does it come from? Well, according to a hard-hitting investigation by BBC, people having been flipping each other off since the dawn of Western civilization:

The Roman historian Tacitus wrote that German tribesmen gave the middle finger to advancing Roman soldiers...Earlier, the Greeks used the middle finger as an explicit reference to the male genitalia.

Slate notes that "the middle finger gesture fell out of favor during the Middle Ages, likely because the Catholic Church disapproved of its sexual suggestiveness."

With a provenance like that, it's no accident that the middle finger remains one of the truest, crudest ways to display your displeasure with another human being. First usage of the middle finger in the United States to be captured on camera is believed to have been in 1886, by pitcher Charles Radbourn:

Apparently, flipping the bird even played a role in our foreign affairs, according to Yahoo:

In 1968, the USS Pueblo was captured by North Korea. Crew members were held and interrogated for months. Photographs of supposedly docile and well-treated crew members were released to the world press. In the photographs, many of the crew flipped the bird. Eventually, the North Koreans inquired why this hand gesture was in so many photos. The imprisoned crew explained it as the Hawaiian Good Luck Sign. For sometime, this satisfied the North Koreans. Most importantly, it shows even in 1968, flipping the bird was not a universal sign.

Nor is Weiner the only New York politician to have recently shown the middle finger: former mayor David Dinkins did so when heckled three years ago. Long before that, in 1976, Nelson Rockefeller, the New York governor, gave the middle finger to protesters in Binghamton, N.Y. He is perhaps the most prominent New Yorker to have given the middle finger, which would come to be known as "the Rockefeller gesture." 

That puts Weiner in good company, if little else does.

Photos: Anthony Weiner via Twitter; Charles Radbourn: 19C Baseball via Wikimedia Commons.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.