As the above image shows, there is no insult quite like either being shown or showing someone the middle finger. Why, exactly, anyone cares at all about seeing a digit stuck up in the air is one of those mysteries that we all kind of just accept, but, in a noble attempt to demystify our long history of being offended by flipping the bird, a recent video from YouTube channel Weird History traces the gesture from its earliest known uses to some famous modern-day examples.
The clip begins with examples from ancient Greece, highlighting “the phallic nature” of a single raised finger sticking out from the center of a fist and mentioning an early recorded instance of it being used when the philosopher Diogenes needed a good, unsophisticated way to show disrespect to another philosopher, Demosthenes.
We’re then told that the ancient Romans called the middle finger the digitus impudicus (“offensive, indecent finger”), are told that it disappeared from popular use for a while in Europe during the Middle Ages, then skip far forward in time to learn that an ornery American baseball player named Charles “Old Hoss” Radbourn immortalized the gesture by being the first person to be photographed giving it during a team picture.
Other notable middle finger uses are documented as the video comes to an end, including the infamous Johnny Cash picture (which was directed, apparently, at Folsom Prison’s warden) and Vice President Nelson Rockefeller flipping off a group of students in 1976, giving us “The Rockefeller Salute” in the process.
So, there you have it. Next time you get cut off in traffic or dress up like Eminem for Halloween, know that you’re participating in a time-honored tradition.
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