The Funny History Of Giving Someone The Middle Finger

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Vote up the facts about "flipping the bird" you can hardly believe.

Let's set the scene. You're livid, you want to scream at someone. But for some reason, you can't speak. What gesture do you give them? 

That's right - the good ol' middle finger comes immediately to mind, right? The middle finger has been known as a way to display anger for a very long time - going all the way back to ancient Greece. In fact, it's "one of the most ancient insult gestures known,” according to anthropologist Desmond Morris.

It doesn't take too much imagination to understand why “flipping the bird” became a common way to silently condemn someone. It's easy to see how the extension of the middle finger (with the rest of the hand in a closed fist) has a phallic nature to it. Read on to find out more.

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  • The Greeks Were Using The Finger As A Sign Of Disrespect As Early As The 5th Century BCE
    Photo: Giovan Battista Langetti / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain
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    The Greeks Were Using The Finger As A Sign Of Disrespect As Early As The 5th Century BCE

    When we say giving the middle finger is an old insult, we really mean it. Old as in ancient Greece - 2,500 years ago. 

    What's particularly amusing is that it wasn't a crude gesture being thrown around by just the crass lower class. One of the first recorded uses of the middle finger as an insult was by the Greek philosopher Diogenes - who threw up his middle finger to display his dislike of the orator Demosthenes. 

  • The Most Famous Middle Finger? Galileo's (Which Is Still Displayed To This Day)
    Photo: Plindenbaum / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA 3.0
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    The Most Famous Middle Finger? Galileo's (Which Is Still Displayed To This Day)

    We'd be remiss if we didn't mention the most famous of middle fingers - mostly because it's still displayed over 300 years after the owner's death. 

    The middle finger originally belonged to the one and only Galileo Galilei, scientist and astronomer extraordinaire. Almost a century after Galileo's death, in 1737, some very loyal followers removed three of his fingers (along with a tooth and vertebra) as the body was being transported to a tomb. 

    The middle finger was kept in a container with the thumb and tooth - and was passed down for generations within the same family. However, the family lost the container in the 1900s - only for it show up at auction in 2009. 

    The finger is now displayed at the Galileo Museum in Florence, Italy. 

  • As Late As The 1960s, The Finger Was Still Not A Universal Gesture
    Photo: Government of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain
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    As Late As The 1960s, The Finger Was Still Not A Universal Gesture

    With such a storied history of being used throughout time, you'd think the middle finger was always a well-known gesture, right? Not quite. 

    In the Middle Ages, the gesture fell out of favor - likely due to the Catholic Church, which did not like its implied sexual nature. It picked up steam in different areas of the world over the past few centuries, but apparently this didn't include North Korea. 

    In 1968, the USS Pueblo was captured by North Korea. During the American crew's months-long detainment, North Korea would release photos of how well they were treating the sailors - as well as how mild-mannered the Americans were being. 

    However, the eagle-eyed American could easily spy that the crew was subtly flipping the bird to the camera in nearly every photograph. When the North Korean captors asked what this symbol was, the sailors claimed it was the Hawaiian good luck sign. 

  • A Sitting Vice President Flipped The Bird To Hecklers During A Presidential Campaign
    Photo: David Hume Kennerly / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain
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    A Sitting Vice President Flipped The Bird To Hecklers During A Presidential Campaign

    Likely the most famous bird flip in American politics comes from Nelson Rockefeller, Gerald Ford's vice president. 

    Rockefeller was at Binghamton University in New York for a campaign event when the famous flipping occurred. Unfortunately for the VP, a camera snapped a shot at the moment he lost his temper. 

    In 1976, this kind of thing was quite scandalous - and the incident even inspired the gesture to be called “The Rockefeller Salute.” (See the photo here.)