A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil’s Storehouse of Human Knowledge
What’s the origin of “the finger”?
September 4, 1998
Can you confirm the following? It sounds rather fishy to me.
[Adam attaches the following memo, which has been floating around the Internet for some time.]
Subject: Truth About the Finger
In the film Titanic the character Rose is shown giving the finger to Jack, another character. Many people who have seen the film question whether “giving the finger” was done around the time of the Titanic disaster, or was it a more recent gesture invented by some defiant seventh-grader. According to research, here’s the true story:
Before the Battle of Agincourt in 1415, the French, anticipating victory over the English, proposed to cut off the middle finger of all captured English soldiers. Without the middle finger it would be impossible to draw the renowned English longbow and therefore [soldiers would] be incapable of fighting in the future. This famous weapon was made of the native English yew tree, and the act of drawing the longbow was known as “plucking the yew.” Much to the bewilderment of the French, the English won a major upset and began mocking the French by waving their middle fingers at the defeated French, saying, “See, we can still pluck yew!”
Over the years some “folk etymologies” have grown up around this symbolic gesture. Since “pluck yew” is rather difficult to say, like “pheasant mother plucker,” which is who you had to go to for the feathers used on the arrows for the longbow, the difficult consonant cluster at the beginning has gradually changed to a labiodental fricative “f,” and thus the words often used in conjunction with the one-finger salute are mistakenly thought to have something to do with an intimate encounter. It is also because of the pheasant feathers on the arrows that the gesture is known as “giving the bird.”
And yew all thought yew knew everything!
— Adam Koford, Salt Lake City, Utah