We tend to take it for granted that the act of giving someone the finger is a contemporary obscene hand gesture. The strange fact of it is that this non-verbal way of telling people to “stick it where the sun don’t shine” has been practiced ever since ancient times!
The name of the actual person who invented giving someone the finger may well be lost to the mists of time. But believe it or not, this offensive gesticulation has been named in ancient Roman texts as the “digitus impudicus” or “impudent finger,” and ancient Greek comedy has used the act of raising one’s middle finger as an insult. This is particularly mentioned in the comedy “The Clouds” by the Greek playwright Aristophanes. Even weirder is the superstitious belief in the first-century Mediterranean world wherein the middle finger is not an insulting gesture, but as a means of warding off the effects of a much more ominous hand signal, the “evil eye.”
Giving someone the finger may well be the universally-recognized symbol of disrespect used as far across the globe as countries like India, Pakistan and other South Asian nations. But other cultures have also had their own variations on this vulgar act. For instance, the British version of the finger is to raise two, the middle and the index finger. The origins of this variant is actually not so much obscene, though still meant as an insult. This was back in medieval times when Britain was at war with France. Captured British archers would be punished by having their middle and index fingers cut off so that wouldn’t be able to pull the strings of their bows. So archers who’ve managed to evade capture would taunt their foes by showing off that they still had their digits intact. Of course today, the two-finger salute is generally placed in the same odious level as its crasser one-finger equivalent.
The two-finger variation, delivered with the back of the hand facing the subject of the insult, is practiced in the United Kingdom, Ireland, and New Zealand. Other international equivalents of giving someone the finger include the bent elbow, which is used in Russia, Poland, Italy and the Ukraine. In certain countries in Africa and the Caribbean, flashing not one but all five fingers at someone with the palm facing the recipient is akin to calling the person a bastard child with five fathers. A similar gesture (this one with fingers spread widely) is the “moutza,” which originates from Greece.
It’s hard to believe that such a vulgar display would have so much history behind it. Obviously, the people who invented giving someone the finger would not have thought that they were contributing something profound to world culture. And in a sense they haven’t, and in another they have. But obscene as it is, the fact is that it has survived and evolved to the present day proves how lifting a single finger can make an impact on the rest of the world.