Origins of the Two-Finger Insult May 19, 2011Author: Beach Combing | in : Contemporary, Medieval, Modern , trackback
The sun is in the heaven, term is over and with the good luck that characterises him Beachcombing has come down with a cracking summer cold. Indeed, as he walks up and down the stairs he feels as if his head is banging on the walls on either side. In this emergency situation he thought that today he would offer a cookie dough post: a hopelessly inadequate, incomplete, short foetal abortion of an essay. But one that a reader may better be able to complete than he.
Moonman recently wrote in about the history of hand gestures. And there are so many to choose from. Think of Elizabethan nonces biting thumbs at each other in Romeo and Juliet. The ‘manly’ and utterly vulgar single middle finger. The devil’s horns lifted against sfiga in Mrs B’s Italy…
Then what about the origins of, in many ways, the most curious of them all: the British and Irish (and Australian and New Zealand), twin fingers, the v sign insult lifted insultingly towards the enemy (pictured above) – not to be confused with the reverse Churchillian v for victory sign. Where does that come from?
There is a charming origin story that has become better and better known in the last generation. The English in their fourteenth and fifteenth century campaigns fought and annihilated the French – Crecy, Poitiers, Agincourt… – with use of the longbow. Allegedly the English, knowing the value of the longbow, would not kill any French peasants that they captured, but chop off their two bow fingers making it impossible for them to use the weapon. The two finger salute became then a pre-battle greeting to the fingerless French.
It is a charming, delightful and improbable story.
Improbable because (i) the French did not particularly employ the longbow – if the story had been about Welsh peasants it would have been another matter and (ii) because it is too beautiful – Beachcombing has learnt, in the last year, that the more satisfying a story the less likely it is to be true. And (iii) because, allegedly, the two finger salute appears in the early fourteenth-century Macclesfield Psalter – though Beachcombing is suspicious because he cannot track this image down and after this a recorded use of the two finger salute does not appear before the very early twentieth century.
Beachcombing can just about credit the Victorians not talking about such vulgarity but the eighteenth-century British? Please!
Any ideas? Any other gesture histories that would be worth following? drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com
19 May 2011: Maxim Gun (!) is right on to this. ‘First let me say that your non British readers might not understand the gesture in its totality. It is not, as you say, just two fingers, there is also the forceful upward motion. Second, Desmond Morris did some work on this. Essentially he did not come to a conclusion but he suggested, inter alia, that it might be two fingers for poking at eyes!’ MG is spot on, of course, with the upward motion. Could it have been a variation on the single middle finger that also involves a speedy upward motion? You give me one finger so I give you two? Thanks Maxim!!
20 May 2011: Four precious emails this morning. First, Kate J. on the diffusion of the Agincourt bowmen’s story in North America. It transpires that Michael Caine regaled the Johnny Carson Show with this tale. Kate says that ‘I like the Agincourt story and will cherish it until a better one comes along’, a sentiment Beach understands. MM writes in to question the version of the tale that Beach gave. ‘Here in Texas I’d always heard that it was the English longbow men who were showing the French that they still had their drawing digits. The French allegedly chopping those two phalanges off upon capturing any poor English archer to render him useless and as a warning to the rest of his companions.’ This is not the version that Beach knows though it makes more sense and disposes of Beach’s first objection. Surely MM is right? Phil P meanwhile writes in with an interpretation of the two fingers: ‘I have no data to back this but I always assumed that it was a stylistic representation of a pair of legs spread wide.’ It makes sense! Then, finally, JEC brings up Churchill in what could be a post in its own right. ‘I know of at least a few events upon which Churchill was captured using the ‘reversed’ V-for-victory salute. One is in the attached photo [see below], date unknown, in what I surmise was London. The others were filmed during what appears to be a 1942 and/or 1943 trip or trips to the desert to visit British and Commonwealth troops. (There is some confusion, at least in my mind, about the dates of events depicted in the Pathe videos. Churchill’s first visit to the troops apparently began August 19, 1942 link to LIFE article here: Churchilll Desert 1942, within a week of having appointed Montgomery 8th Army commander. The second Pathe video appears to me to be from the same trip. Churchill is dressed identically in both videos, and some scenes appear very similar, such as Churchill’s visit to the N.Z. cemetery. Ergo, caveat exhibitor.) The first, labeled as August of 1942, depicts the siren-suited and dancing-pump-shod Prime Minister demonstrating the ‘obverse salute’ at 1:27-1:42 and 2:38. During his second(?) trip in 1943(?), Churchill flips the backwards V at 1:33 and 2:28 3:09-3:24, 4:21-30 . Various troops are pictured returning the favor at 1:59-2:06! Now it could be my imagination, but these troops returning the reversed V look a little halting and nonplussed, as though they aren’t quite sure they should be filmed doing what they’re doing. Oddly, Churchill conspicuously turns the V right-side-out at 4:01, and troops respond with the ‘correct’ version. Perhaps the thrusting motion was the key which turned a patriotic gesture into an insult worth a man’s life, and perhaps Churchill was aware of that fine distinction. But I wonder if it made that much difference to the lads from Dublin and Manchester. I’d rather picture the ultimate aristocrat, dressed like the odd duck he always was, perhaps entirely innocent of the fact he was telling hundreds of very rough men to get stuffed, but supremely uncaring in any case.’
Beachcombing here can draw on his small pool of personal experiences. Pater Beachcombing came from a sheltered upper middle class background in the home counties – minor private school, cricket, walks on the Downs etc etc. In any case, Beachcombing’s vividly remembers his shocked father learning, in advanced middle age, the meaning of the two fingers salute when an adolescent Beachcombing – comprehensive school, soccer, walks in the Pennines etc – exchanged signs with a driver on a backstreet in a minor northern town. This suggests that whereas today the two-fingered salute is universally known in the UK, within living memory it was still strictly plebeian. Beachcombing would bet that Churchill hadn’t the slightest idea and that no one who did know dared tell him. Thanks Kate, JEC, Phil and MM!!!
26 Oct 2014: RR writes with an alternative scenario: While there are several candidates for the origins of the British two-fingered salute, I hear one many years ago which makes the most sense to me. Given the fact that the gesture is rude and defiant, it would stand to reason that it’s origins would reflect that. I once read that after the defeat at Agincourt, the French king found every English longbow man who stayed behind and chopped off their index and middle fingers on their right hands as punishment for their victory. When the English returned once again during this tumultuous time, English longbow men held up their two fingers as a gesture of defiance to the French.’ Sweet Jane points out that those cheeky cousins in the US have appropriated the English Agincourt legend for the middle finger. What a nerve and how incredibly implausible… Thanks Jane and RR!