How Did The Middle Finger Become The Ultimate Insult?

Sarah Kester
Person holding up finger
Unsplash | Franco Antonio Giovanella

It's one of the greatest insults known to man. No, it's not swearing or — gasp — saying you don't like someone's outfit.

It's giving the middle finger, also known as flipping the bird or the one-finger salute. Whatever you want to call it, the translation is pretty clear. It's used when you want to tell someone off with your hands, like when someone betrays you or a driver cuts you off.

But when did it become so offensive? Here, we take a look back through history.

People have been flipping the bird for centuries.

Couple in Ancient Greece
Vanity Fair | Universal

In ancient Greece, the meaning behind the middle finger was used to symbolize sex. The middle finger represented the male’s private parts, while the rest of the curled-up fingers were the testicles.

Imagine giving someone the finger in a bar when you're trying to let them know that you're sexually interested.

Gerald Butler in 300
Indie Wire | Warner Bros.

That would be pretty weird. Those in Ancient Rome took this one step further.

While the middle finger also symbolized sex for them, it wasn't the passionate, sweet kind.

Their gesture was a physical threat to, erm, someone's behind.

Cringe face
Giphy | Workaholics

In other words, threatening anal penetration.

Somewhere along the way in history, the meaning behind the middle finger deviated not too far away from sex. It does mean, "[expletive] you," after all.

"[expletive] you" is exactly the meaning the finger had when it arrived in America.

Team photo of the Boston Beaneaters
Complex | Complex

According to Complex, the first documented image of the middle finger was taken in America. This was during a team photo of the 1889 Boston Beaneaters. Charles “Old Hoss” Radbourn can be seen giving the finger over his teammate's shoulder.

Since then, there have been many notable moments of the middle finger in pop culture.

Johnny Cash saying "Hello, I'm Johnny Cash"

Johnny Cash's most iconic photo is a photo of him flipping the bird during a concert at San Quentin State Prison. He used it to show his disdain for the warden after the photographer asked for a picture.

In 1994, former president George Bush gave what he called a "one-fingered victory salute"

George Bush blinking

This was after he had won the governorship of Texas. But since it was a tight finish between him and his Democratic rival, Ann Richards, the gesture was seen less as victory and more as "go to hell."

Even Canada — a country associated around the world for being nice — had its prime minister flip the bird.

Canadian flag blowing in the wind
Giphy | Pi-Slices

This was Pierre Trudeau, the father of current prime minister Justin Trudeau. While on a train in 1982, he gave the middle finger to a group of protesters in western Canada.

This startling moment in history soon became known as the “Trudeau salute” in Canada.

canadian flag over ottawa
Unsplash | Jason Hafso

It's hard to imagine the mild-mannered Justin Trudeau ever doing the same. He even dodged questions about his father's most controversial moment during interviews in 2017.

Over the years, Hollywood has kept the middle finger alive.

The Hollywood sign
Unsplash | Vincentas Liskauskas

It's appeared in several films, such as The Breakfast Club, The Matrix, The Wolf of Wall Street, and even Titanic.

Rose (Kate Winslet) flipped off Lovejoy, the henchman who was chasing her and Jack throughout the ship.

At some point, you have to ask: when did the middle finger become so offensive?

Joey eating pizza on the couch and saying "i don't know."
Giphy | Friends

Like many other things, we have society to blame. Since we were kids, we were taught to keep our fingers out of our noses and our fingers to ourselves.

Those who don't are forced to apologize.

Seth Meyers shrugging
Giphy | Late Night with Seth Meyers

Like when the NFL apologized on pop star M.I.A.'s behalf for giving the middle finger during her Super Bowl performance with Madonna.

This was about as obscene as when Janet Jackson's breast accidentally showed during her performance with Justin Timberlake.

So, will the offensive meaning of the middle finger ever stop? Probably not. But is it still fun to do sometimes? If you want to feel like a rebel, sure.