The Vanishing Fig.

Anatoly recently had a post on elements of the Russian language of gesture (a rich one, about which there’s a very useful illustrated book, A Dictionary of Russian Gesture [CommissionsEarned]). He said that when he was a kid in 1980s Ukraine, nobody used the middle-finger gesture for “fuck you,” they only used the “elbow gesture” (жест по локоть, what the French call bras d’honneur); there was also the фига (fig), also called дуля or кукиш, which was used mainly as a sign of refusal (“nothing doing,” “no way”). He asked if the fig is still used, and if the Western middle-finger gesture has displaced the elbow one; the answers are fascinating, and I’ll summarize a few of them here. (Apparently the fig is, or was, also used when you saw someone with a black eye or sty.)

On the subject of the fig as refusal, son_0f_morning wrote that it was more specifically equivalent to the phrase “на коси выкуси” — i.e., it added an element of taunting. I hadn’t known the phrase; Sophia Lubensky, in her invaluable Dictionary of Idioms [CommissionsEarned], has it as:

HА́-KA (НА́-КАСЬ, НА́-КАСЯ, НА́), ВЫ́КУСИ! substand, rude […] emphatically no (used to express one’s categorical refusal to do sth., refutation of some statement etc): (when refusing to do sth.) no (frigging) way!; you can whistle for it!; not on your life!; nothing doing!; like hell I (we) will!; I’ll see you in hell first!; [when refuting a statement] what (a load of) crap!; that’s bullshit!; [when emphasizing a previous statement of refusal etc] put that in your pipe (and smoke it)! […]
     < The idiom may be accompanied by one of two gestures: a “fig” gesture, in which one’s hand is extended, clenched in a fist with the palm usually facing up and the thumb placed between the index and middle fingers or an obscene gesture, by which the left fist is placed in the crook of the right arm and the right elbow is bent, bringing the forearm all the way up.


There is discussion of the terms фига/дуля/кукиш; an anonymous commenter says “дуля is what I use, фига sounds normal, but кукиш is exotic and I don’t even know where the stress goes,” and Anatoly responds “In Ukraine we said дуля, I knew фига from books, but кукиш was a super-bookish rare word.” There seems to be general agreement that the middle finger appeared after perestroika (late ’80s), when Western films became widely available, and that it has largely displaced the elbow, though velikiygeniy says that when he was growing up in the ’60s, the elbow was not yet used — it came in from the west in the ’70s — and the fig was in general use until perestroika (“We should preserve it out of patriotism”). r_p says that the fig is still around as an ironic gesture, used as a joke (and it was mostly used by children in the ’80s). as_romanoff says “alas, the middle finger [фак, i.e. “fuck”] has replaced everything but a punch to the jaw.” And r0l says the elbow will soon be forgotten: “Maybe our grandchildren won’t even understand this classic,” quoting the following lines from Brodsky’s 1973 poem Лагуна (you can hear it read here; Anthony Hecht’s translation, doubtless heavily reworked by Brodsky, is here):

Скрестим же с левой, вобравшей когти,
правую лапу, согнувши в локте;
жест получим, похожий на
молот в серпе, — и, как чорт Солохе,
храбро покажем его эпохе,
принявшей образ дурного сна.

The same stanza in Hecht’s version:

So let us place the left paw, sheathing its claws,
in the crook of the arm of the other one, because
this makes a hammer-and-sickle sign
with which to salute our era and bestow
a mute up-yours-even-unto-the-elbow
upon the nightmares of our time.

Understandably, it omits “как чорт Солохе” [‘like the devil to Solokha’] as being meaningless to non-Russians; Solokha (a diminutive of Solomonia) is the heroine’s mother (and a witch) in Gogol’s story “Christmas Eve.”

Comments

  1. The fig is disappearing? Ни фига себе! During my Russian period in the 90s, I seldom saw the gesture, but that expression was still very current…but that would have been many years ago now.

  2. Oh, I’m sure the expression is still current — it’s just the gesture that’s enduring the long goodbye.

  3. And in any case that’s a euphemism for Ни хуя себе, so the literal meaning is more or less irrelevant.

  4. John Cowan says:

    I haven’t seen the fig here in NYC, but the elbow is plenty current. I wouldn’t be able to explain the difference between that and the finger, though.

  5. David Eddyshaw says:

    I adhere myself to the Imperial palm-inwards V-sign, and eschew these horrid Americanisms.
    Sadly the young people of today in the UK are abandoning the obscene gestures of our glorious past. I blame Hollywood.

    The equivalent in West Africa is what the depraved Europeans and Americans use as the hitchhiker’s thumb gesture (as I think I’ve mentioned before.)

  6. I like “you can whistle for it”. In Hebrew there’s an equivalentexpression, kfots li קפוץ לי, roughly “jump for me”. It must be a loan translation of something.

    As gestures go, I am sorry to say that in Israel the Western middle finger, unknown when I was growing up, seems to have supplanted the older “triple finger”, wherein the middle finger is pointed forward and the others are held back as far as muscle tension will allow (children point it toward their adversary; adults point it up, for a more of an up-yours gesture.)

  7. John Cowan says:

    My personal middle-finger gesture involves curling the middle finger slightly while curling the other fingers as tightly as possible so that the fingertips touch the most distal part of the palm. I can’t hold it all that long, but the people I have demonstrated it for (in a friendly spirit, of course) agree that it is much more obscene than the mere extended middle finger they would use.

  8. In another middle finger variation, the lowest joints of the four fingers are kept straight with the palm, and the three othe that the middle fingers are bent down at the first knuckle. I was told once that it’s an Eastern US style.

  9. Is, “You can whistle for it,” common in current use in Britain? The only place I ever encountered it was in the Inspector Morse episode “The Sins of the Fathers.” In context, the sentiment being expressed was reasonably clear, but the wording seemed utterly bizarre, since normally something that one may whistle for would be something that one seemingly had complete control over. Is the expression supposed to be ironic, or is there some other allusion to it that I am overlooking?

  10. Fig was apparently very popular, and not childish at all, in the early decades of 20th century. Here’s “our response to Chamberlain”. Lord Curzon got his own response a few years before.

    When I was a kid, on special occasions we managed to put thumbs on both hands between the index and middle fingers and pinkies between middle and “nameless” (that is, ring) fingers, directed these two two-barreled weapons at an adversary and declared

    Рули, рули, рули, рули
    На тебе четыре дули

    Which means something like:
    Ruli, ruli, ruli, ruli [meaningless word]
    These four dulyas are for you

  11. Andrew Dunbar says:

    It’s not the “western middle finger”, it’s the “American middle finger”.

    I grew up in ’70s and ’80s Australia and we still used the “inverted peace sign” at least well into the ’90s. That’s like the peace sign except you point the back of your hand toward the other person while holding up the two fngers. Optionally you may make an up-down or vertical pivoting motion. The same as the British use or used. You’ve seen it in Monty Python.

    But when I was on one of my first big road trips in the late 1980s I found that people in at least parts of rural Australia used a different gesture older than the “inverted peace sign”. That looked exactly like the “thumbs up” sign but probably always required an up-down motion, or at least an up motion.

    So in Australia we’ve already had two disappearing figs in my lifetime.

  12. Is, “You can whistle for it,” common in current use in Britain?

    Yes. I’d say more commonly: “you can go whistle for it”. (Now that I say that out loud, that “go” is sounding somewhat of an Americanism. Somebody please tell me it isn’t.)

    IIRC there’s something in Tristram Shandy about my uncle whistling ‘Lillabullero’; or would that be Corporal Trim? Ah here we go: “Uncle Toby’s seemingly innocuous whistling of the song throughout the novel is of greater significance than is often acknowledged. ” [google for “The Irish References in Sterne’s Tristram Shandy”]

    since normally something that one may whistle for would be something that one seemingly had complete control over.

    Complete control over? Ever tried whistling for your dog when it’s on the scent of a rabbit in the long grass?

  13. Stu Clayton says:

    since normally something that one may whistle for would be something that one seemingly had complete control over

    That’s ringing the (servants’) bell. “Seemingly” is the right word in any case.

  14. Actually, although my dog was fairly stupid and not very well trained, he was quite reliable about coming when I whistled. However, that was only when I whistled; he wouldn’t do it for anyone else.

  15. A guy at school always said цукиш instead of кукиш, so eventually he was nicknamed Цукиш. He was Ukrainian, so it might have come from there, but I’m not sure. Searching for цукиш or цукіш produces no meaningful results.

  16. It’s not the “western middle finger”, it’s the “American middle finger”.

    I started to write “American” but then was afraid of being one of those Yanks who thinks everything Americans do is American by definition and if I wrote that someone would say “Actually, we invented the middle finger, you imperialist,” so I made it more general. You can’t win.

  17. In Ireland in the 1980s child folklore was that one finger was “fuck off” and two was “up yours”. Harvey Smith agrees about up yours and he should know.

  18. Andrew Dunbar says:

    It’s true you can’t win (-: I have the same uncertainty frequently. I could be wrong guessing that the bird is originally American. I only know that we in Australia picked it up from American media. I don’t think I saw anyone in Australia copying it in the ’80s and I’m going to guess that Aussie millennials all use it instead of the two fingers now, but I’m a bit out of touch now being old and always being overseas.

    When we accompanied the two finger version with words it was always “up yours” but it was also almost my understanding that this meant the same as “fuck off”, “get fucked”, “fuck you” etc.

  19. David Marjanović says:

    The middle finger reached Austria in the early 1990s or perhaps at the end of the 80s. (I was told that shortly before I joined my school in Vienna, one class was told to draw hands, and the best drawings were put on exhibit in the aisle. One of the drawings on exhibit showed the middle-finger gesture; obviously the teachers had no idea it meant anything.) It doesn’t seem to have replaced anything; I’m not aware of any other obscene gestures in use (and had never even read of the inverted peace sign before this thread).

    The middle finger does have variants: one hand, two hands, with the other fingers extended up to the first joint or not (though don’t ask me if “not” is ever intentional or just a matter of personal inability), and the one where you make your left forearm vertical while extending the left middle finger and hitting the inside of the left elbow with your right palm. There’s no difference in meaning, AFAIK, except perhaps intensity.

    No verbal eu- or dysphemisms are in use to describe these gestures; they’re all den Mittelfinger zeigen “show the middle finger”.

    I was once told it means “asshole”. No verbal usages are recorded.

  20. Harvey Smith

    For a moment I thought you’d written “Harry Smith”. I was imagining a collection of hundreds of plaster casts of obscene gestures from Appalachian hollers and Indian villages.

  21. ‘Up yours all the way to the elbow!’

  22. David Marjanović says:

    See, our homophobia is different. (Should be TV Trope, like Our Dragons Are Different and several others; I’m not gonna look up if it is.) If you threaten a man with rape, you’re gay forever and must be ridiculed for the rest of your life.

  23. What Andrew calls “the inverted peace sign” had another name: “the forks”. Probably gone by now.

    It was always “Get fucked” but “Fuck you” is probably replacing that, too.

  24. The “bird” scene from Top Gun certainly had a lot to do with popularising the middle finger at my school – in Australia.

  25. John Cowan says:

    WP has an article on the V sign in both orientations. Chasing links, I find that the first known appearance of the insulting palm-inward sign was in the margin of the Macclesfield Psalter (ca. 1330), so it is ancient indeed.

    The palm-outward sign for ‘victory’ was apparently devised by the Belgian politician-in-exile in 1941: he asked all Belgians to use it as a sign of resistance, as it could stand for victoire or vrijheid ‘freedom’. Churchill then picked it up and used it heavily; I’ve seen speculation that it appealed to him because it showed the audience what the forks looks like from the user’s viewpoint, as if the British public were insulting the Nazi enemy.

    The shift from ‘victory’ to ‘peace’ in the 1960s was because both meant ‘an end to war’; the later extension to ‘friend’ was natural. Since in America neither gesture had any meaning until the 1940s except as an ad hoc representation of ‘two’, the palm-inward version is ASL for ‘two’, the palm-outward version for ‘V’, and a rotating version, first out and then in, for ‘second’.

  26. David Marjanović says:

    WP has an article

    My computer remembers having been to the “As an insult” section before.

    I don’t.

    I suppose it shall remain “basically unknown outside the British Isles”.

  27. January First-of-May says:

    HА́-KA (НА́-КАСЬ, НА́-КАСЯ, НА́), ВЫ́КУСИ!

    Weirdly, the only spelling I knew of for the first word in this phrase was накося, with an O.
    (Might have also seen накось somewhere; still O.)

    Regarding the terminology, I’m not sure whether I understood that фига and кукиш were the same thing, but I was definitely familiar with both words (slightly less so with the latter); however, I only knew дуля as some vague negative gesture occasionally mentioned in books.
    When I asked my mother, she confirmed that she knew both words, but normally used the former; when specifically asked about дуля, she said she also believed it was the same thing, but thought that it could also mean a (light?) punch (тумак).

    Can’t recall having ever heard of any elbow-related gesture, and the pictures on Wikipedia don’t look familiar.

  28. WP also has an article on “The finger”, tracing the gesture back to ancient Greece and Rome.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_finger

  29. David Marjanović says:

    “This, for you, is the demagogue of the Athenians!”

  30. Kate Bunting says:

    As a (UK) schoolgirl in the 60s I used to think I must be the only one who didn’t understand why the V-sign is rude; I learned later that the reason is unknown (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/V_sign ). The theory that it dates back to the Battle of Agincourt is unproven.
    I’ve never heard it called the peace sign before.

  31. I believe no discussion of the fig would be complete without this (a scene from the Agony by Klimov):

    https://youtu.be/Ll1Wdob2P1E?t=4066

  32. John Cowan says:

    That 1330 drawing I mentioned above is almost a century before Agincourt.

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