Pointing Fingers a Rude Gesture

By Dr. Tilak S. Fernando | Published: 2:00 AM Oct 23 2020
Columns Pointing Fingers a Rude Gesture

By Dr. Tilak S. Fernando

If a motorist makes a boo-boo on the road in a Western country other drivers will immediately show the middle finger in anger for being careless and reckless! Showing the middle finger in many cultures is regarded as criticising another person, who makes a wrong move. It is undoubtedly considered as a vile and obscene hand gesture.  

Gesticulation can communicate from moderate to extreme contempt, which can mean coming out of an angry person telling “ eff – off,” “up yours”  or even “ shove it up to you’re a..etc.” Usually, this is done by projecting the back of a hand with only the middle finger or two fingers extended upwards (as opposed to the victory sign). This finger feature is considered as a symbol of contempt in several cultures, which has seemingly spread to Sri Lanka too. Although several cultures use this gesture to display their disrespect, in certain cultures thumb sign is regarded as an expression of saying,  “ok”, “thank you” or “well done”. So, although hand gestures are usually used to express contempt, it can also be used humorously or playfully.

Old Traditions

The middle finger gesture was used by people during the olden eras as a symbol of ‘sexual intercourse’ to humiliate or terrorise and warn the individual who receives the motion. On the contrary, during the 1st-century, extending the finger was regarded as one of many methods used to divert the ever-present threat of the evil eye that causes misfortune or injury.

The hand gesture dates back to Ancient Greece. Historically it was used to represent the phallus, which means the male potency. In some modern cultures, it is merely used as a sign of disrespect of a gesture of obscene. The cynic philosopher Diogenes is believed to have expressed his disgust to Demosthenes by sticking out his middle finger by exclaiming thus: “This, for you, is the demagogue of the Athenians.” Demosthenes was a politician, talented in oratory, flattery and criticism. He promised to his people everything, but engaged in his own egocentricity rather than engaged in discharging problems of the public. It is akin to some Sri Lankan politicians, who promise the voter during elections before they get elected to high office.  But once they get in to Parliament or Town Council  they become unapproachable and are seen to be in cloud nine all the time.

Finger Gesture in International Terms

Middle finger gesture has been a notable international signal in political events too.  When the US Naval environmental research ship Pueblo was captured by North Korean forces in January 1968, the American crewmembers in the ship had shown the middle finger gesture to Koreans. The North Koreans, who were ignorant of what the gesture meant, had assumed that it was a “Hawaiian good luck signal” and treated well. However, when Koreans came to know what the Americans meant, the crewmembers became subjected to severe ill-treatment.

In 1976, the US Vice President pointed the gesture at the hecklers during his campaign in New York that became famous as the “Rockefeller gesture”!   Prime Minister of Canada, Pierre Trudeau, raised his finger to protesters in British Columbia (Salmon Arm).  It later gave rise to the nickname as “Salmon Arm salute”; after it was also known as the “Trudeau salute”. 

George W. Bush as the  Governor of Texas was known for showing the finger gesture at the camera at an Austin production installation. He said it was “just a one-finger victory salute!”. In the United Kingdom, Ireland, Australia, and New Zealand, the V sign or “the fingers”, when given with back of the hand towards the recipient, serves a similar purpose. Puerto Rican singer Ricky Martin gave a picture of George W. Bush with the finger gesture to protest the Iraqi  war.  Anthony David Weiner, former American  Democratic Senator, New York until 2011,  showed the finger gesture to reporters on the night he lost the primary election in 2013.

Greek Comedies  

In ancient Greek comedies  “the finger was used as a gesture  of insult to another person who submits to an anal penetration to a female”. Socrates reacted to the gesture as boorish and childish. In Latin, the middle finger is known as the digitus impudicus, which means shameless or offensive finger. According to anthropologist Desmond Morris, (the Australian rugby league footballer, coach and administrator), the gesture probably came to the United States via Italian immigrants. In the US in 1886 when a baseball pitcher for Boston Bean Eaters was photographed showing the middle finger to a member of the rival group New York Giants (Thesaurus).

Italian artist, Maurizio Cartlean installed a marble statue of a middle finger measuring  36 ft, located directly in front of the Milan Stock Exchange. Bud Adams, the owner of the National Football League’s Tennessee Titans, was fined US$250,000 for giving both middle fingers to the fans of the Buffalo Bills during a game.

Within the musical arena, too popular entertainers such as Madonna and Britney Spears are on record for publicly making the hand gestures, towards members of the paparazzi. In Islamic cultures, this obscene gesture is extended by showing all five digits with the palm facing forward. It means “you have five fathers”, thus calling someone a bastard!

Showing the finger gesture can result in dangerous and negative consequences as well, depending on the temperament of the person it is directed at. A Malaysian was beaten to death after showing the finger gesture to a motorist following a car chase. In some countries showing the finger motion is regarded as violating the country’s decency codes. It is a clear-cut indication of how a Pakistani was deported from the United Arab Emirates under the violation of indecency codes. 

Before the Battle of Agincourt in 1415, the French, anticipating victory over the English, proposed to cut off the middle finger of all captured English soldiers. This was because without the middle finger it wouldn’t be possible to draw the English longbow, which was termed as ‘plucking the yew’; the bow itself was made out of the wood of the yew tree. It created a confusion of the French when the English won and started mocking at the French by waving their middle fingers at the defeated French.

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By Dr. Tilak S. Fernando | Published: 2:00 AM Oct 23 2020

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