Ancient Finger Gestures.

Via Laudator Temporis Acti I learn of Max Nelson’s “Insulting Middle-Finger Gestures among Ancient Greeks and Romans” (Phoenix 71.1/2 [Spring/Summer 2017]: 66-88), which is available at JSTOR; it starts off mentioning the claim “that ancient Greeks and Romans used the insulting gesture in which a stiff middle finger is displayed (and sometimes also thrust upwards), with the palm facing inwards, in the same manner, and potentially even with the same meaning, as is common today in North America” and says “In what follows I attempt to demonstrate that there is no uncontestable evidence for this as a common gesture among ancient Greeks and Romans.” He begins with the Greek verb σκιμαλίζω, defined in dictionaries of ancient Greek as ‘to give someone the finger’ (in the sense described above), and shows that it seems to mean rather ‘prodding between the buttocks’ or ‘goosing.’ He discusses a couple of other verbs as well as a phrase meaning ‘extending the middle finger’ (horizontally rather than vertically), then proceeds to Latin phrases like infami digito and digitus impudicus. Here’s the final paragraph:

In conclusion, there is no incontrovertible evidence that ancient Greeks and Romans “gave the finger” in the same manner and with the same meaning common in North America today, or that the modern gesture descends from, or was inspired by, an ancient one. Various insulting gestures using the middle finger are certainly attested in ancient Greek and Latin texts. One source mentions holding the middle finger up in voting as a rude gesture and a number of sources make it clear that pointing to someone with the middle finger horizontally was insulting. Even ruder, as it involves the invasion of personal space and physical contact, was hitting someone’s nostril or nose with the middle finger, or goosing, that is, grabbing at someone’s buttocks or prodding someone’s anus, presumably as ways of ridiculing a male victim for his effeminacy or pathic nature (or maybe as an uninvited sexual advance, playful poke, flirtatious signal, or general insult). Finally, snapping the middle finger and thumb was thought of as impolite. Many of these gestures probably relied on the use of the middle finger to represent an erect penis. In fact the middle finger has been so used naturally and independently in many different contexts in disparate societies at various times. Therefore it would be rash to state that the modern gesture of “giving the finger” is directly linked to an ancient one. In the end then it is perhaps best to keep “the finger” to ourselves.

The whole thing is well worth a read, and incontrovertibly demonstrates the value of a classical education.


  1. David Eddyshaw says

    In West Africa, the “thumbs up” gesture is the rude one. It’s good to know this if you plan to hitchhike.

  2. In Japan, a raised thumb signals ‘male’ and a raised little finger signals ‘female’. A thumb between the first two fingers signals ‘fuck’. The latter sign fingerspells T in ASL, so the fingerspelling of TA in JSL was changed to the raised thumb.

    A raised middle finger, but with palm facing the viewer, fingerspells SE (a pictorial representation of SE ‘spine’).

    For more on ASL to JSL, see

  3. Here the gesture used to be called фак (a fuck) before people began writing things like каррент муда, that is.
    Показать фак.

  4. The אֶצְבַּע מְשֻׁלֶּשֶׁת etsba meshuleshet ‘tripled finger’ I knew when I grew up is made with a flat hand, the middle finger bent forward, the thumb and pinky pulled back. It can be pointed at the addressee, or pointed up for a more dynamic expression. It’s been utterly supplanted by the American-style middle finger, which was unknown when I was a kid (a friend in junior high jokingly made up that “backwards” triple finger, to teach it to his little sister so he could laugh at her when she got mad and tried it on him. He apparently didn’t recognize it as a gesture anyone actually used.) Now I never see the older ‘tripled finger’ at all.

    Etsba meshuleshet is a literary term. In popular usage it was called לַעֲשׂוֹת זַיִן la’asot zayin ‘to make a dick’ or such.

    Supposedly it was used in the past to ward off devils, too.

    Back to the U.S., a friend once showed me what he believed was a regional difference in the production of the middle finger: the ‘Western style’, with the remaining three fingers bent down at the lowest joint onto the palm, the thumb holding them down; and the ‘Eastern’ style, with the three fingers held straight at the lowest joint (i.e. at the palm), and bent down at the middle joint.

  5. David Marjanović says

    Both styles seem to have made it to Europe, but maybe the “Western” one was just reinvented because it’s considerably easier to produce.

    Both were unknown in Austria until the early 90s. Not just to me personally – in the school I went to in Vienna*, a class was told to draw hands in various positions in early 1993 at the latest, the best drawings were put on exhibit, and one of those showed the gesture that the teacher evidently didn’t recognize. I arrived in late ’93 and heard this talked about.

    * Later visited by Austria’s youngest Altkanzler (now a Thiel employee) and by his ineffective chief opponent (who remains in ineffective office).

  6. Both styles seem to have made it to Europe

    Per WP, the gesture was probably imported from Italy to the United States in the 19th century.

  7. Stu Clayton says

    goosing, that is, grabbing at someone’s buttocks or prodding someone’s anus, presumably as ways of ridiculing a male victim for his effeminacy or pathic nature (or maybe as an uninvited sexual advance, playful poke, flirtatious signal, or general insult).

    Oh dear, another po-faced, clueless young’un.

    # The Rolls started up gently, gladly, like a well-goosed widow, and we drifted out of the Goods Area making about as much noise as a goldfish in a bowl. # [Bonfiglioli, Don’t Point That Thing at Me]

  8. Charles Perry says

    I’m embarrassed that I can’t find my materials, but I seem to remember that in Ge Sinan (the language of Harer in Ethiopia) the fingers have quaint names, the middle finger having one that translates as “the finger that insulted Muhammad.”

    But I could be wrong.

  9. @DE: in much of eastern europe too, if i remember my early-00s pre-hitchhiking warnings right (never saw the gesture used in the wild).

    @Y: do you know whether that older form is israeli jewish specific or a general bilad ash-shams (or wider ottoman) gesture?

    and the two u.s. styles of fuck-you finger were definitely both in use in the boston area in the early 1980s. i think of the closed-fist version as the usual one, especially for quick flip-offs, and the flat-palm one as mainly for more extended theatrical versions. i wonder if they reflect different italian regional usage, or had differentiated meanings over there.

  10. Lars Mathiesen says

    Række fuck-finger or give fingeren. Clearly an American import, but I don’t hang with people who attach importance to what the other fingers do, except move out of the way. (My tendons tell me I’m being weird if I try for any very bunched or flat configuration, I clearly use the gesture too rarely, I.e., mostly at car drivers who don’t observe right-of-way at zebra crossings, and they never stop to correct my execution).

  11. David Eddyshaw says

    Rude Italian gestures have contributed in many ways to Western culture.

    Wittgenstein was insisting that a proposition and what it describes must have the same ‘logical form’, the same ‘logical multiplicity’. Sraffa made a gesture, familiar to Neapolitans as meaning something like disgust or contempt, of brushing the underneath of his chin with an outward sweep of the finger-tips of one hand. And he asked: ‘What is the logical form of that?’

  12. Richard Hershberger says

    Obligatory early baseball history cite: This seems to be the earliest photograph of someone giving the finger. It is a Boston team photo, with pitcher Charlie “Old Hoss” Radbourn the perpetrator. Some people occasionally question whether it had the modern significance. Those who have studied Radbourn’s personality are not among those who wonder about this. I’m not sure what year it is from, but it would be 1886-1890:

  13. David Marjanović says

    Baseball history to the rescue.

  14. January First-of-May says

    A thumb between the first two fingers signals ‘fuck’. The latter sign fingerspells T in ASL

    And in Russian this is фига (as I know it, but also called кукиш), a rude gesture (approximately meaning “nope, won’t do this”), but not “fuck” level rude.

    Wikipedia: “The fig sign is a mildly obscene gesture used at least since the Roman Age in Italy, Southern Europe, parts of the Mediterranean region, including in Turkish culture, and has also been adopted by Slavic cultures and South Africa. The gesture uses a thumb wedged in between two fingers.”

  15. John Cowan says

    I have a fuck-you gesture which as far as I know is unique to myself: the palm is flat, fingers 1-2 and 4-5 are tightly curled up (representing, I suppose, the testicles), and finger 3 is curved slightly towards me (representing in the same hypothetical way a common variant penis shape). I have no idea where I got this from, if indeed I didn’t invent it myself. My wife finds it shuddersomely literal.

  16. Those who have studied Radbourn’s personality are not among those who wonder about this
    Just looking at his face on the photograph makes it quite clear what the gesture means. 🙂

  17. @rozele: Now that I think about it, indeed it saw it used by Palestinians, and it was also called (by Ashkenazis anyway) תְּנוּעָה מִזְרָחִית tnu’a mizraxit ‘Mizrahi gesture’.

    In Eastern Europe, it seems to have been the tucked-thumb version. First, because it’s called פֿייג feig, in what I could find; second, because I found a spell kids (boys, anyway) would to recite to ward off vicious dogs, while making The Gesture inside their pockets.

  18. Ifrah’s Universal History of Numbers describes the ancient Roman and Islamic finger counting system. Owing to this system it’s possible to describe various hand gestures by their number.

    Ifrah recounts a scurrilous ancient anecdote: “Ahmād al Barbir al Tarābulusī could not resist offering his pupils the following mnemonic for the gestures representing 30 and 90: A poet most elegantly said, of a handsome young man: Khālid set out with a fortune of 90 dirhams but had only one third of it left when he returned! plainly asserting that Khālid was homosexual, having started narrow but finished wide.” Pg 59

  19. while making The Gesture inside their pockets

    Russian expression is “keep a fig in a pocket”, meaning “agree overtly, disagree covertly” or maybe just simple lying. I never thought that someone actually was doing it in my time.

  20. David Marjanović says

    Hexenkreuz: crossed fingers behind your back invalidate your oaths. No idea how witches are involved.

  21. Stu Clayton says

    Hexenkreuz: crossed fingers behind your back invalidate your oaths.

    This is known to American children, but it’s simply called “crossing your fingers”. There’s no witch involved.

    I wonder what the notional connection is with Hexenschuß.

    plainly asserting that Khālid was homosexual, having started narrow but finished wide.

    Many people put on weight when they are old.

  22. PlasticPaddy says

    This widening is more along the lines of the doctor, who, preparing to give one an injection in the backside, commands one to “bend over and open wide!”

  23. Stu Clayton says


    That’s what a doctor says when preparing to palpate a prostate. If “opening wide” is necessary for a gluteal injection, the doctor’s vision is so impaired that I would recommend he consult DE – who could surely recommend a 20-20 proctologist as well.

  24. David Eddyshaw says

    who could surely recommend a 20-20 proctologist as well

    It’s all done by feel …

  25. The fig sign is not just ‘mildly’ obscene. I think the ripe black fig splits open like a vagina. I can
    publicly thank my college buddy Marcello for my only extended Italian memorization:

    Acqua fresca, vino pura. Figa streta, cazzo duro.

  26. Roberto Batisti says

    @iakon: *puro, *stretta (but if your buddy was from the North-East, possibly he said it with a single /t/. figa with /g/ points to the North anyway).

  27. My buddy’s grandfather ‘enjoyed’ three successive nationalities without leaving his home,
    which was the island I learned as Losinj, now called Cres.

  28. No, Lošinj is Lussino/Lusin/Osero/Lötzing/Apsorrus/Ἄψορρος; Cres is Crepsa/Cherso/Χέρσος. I love those Adriatic place names.

  29. Also Krk/Veglia/Vikla/Curicta/Κύρικον and Rab/Arba/Arbe/Arbey.

  30. Sorry, LH, I assumed the town of Mali Losinj meant Little Losinj. Crossed wires, or synapses.

  31. No need to apologize, it’s easy to get lost in that tangle!

  32. David Marjanović says


    That’s delightful; I had no idea!

  33. Yes, I have an old map of Yugoslavia on which I’ve added all the alternate names I could find, and I sometimes just gaze at it in delight: Susak/Sansego/Sansig, Poreč/Parenzo/Πάρενθος, Kvarner/Quarnaro, Prvić/Provicchio, Olib/Ulbo, Vir/Puntadura, Iž/Eso/Ese… I could wallow in that stuff for hours.

  34. These islands are, of course, where Dalmatian was spoken, which is another story itself.
    Marcello was Italian, but his parents probably migrated to Italy, which offered to take
    Dalmatians as refugees after WW II.

  35. Most of those place names are due to borrowing from Dalmatian into Croatian and Venetian, then standard Italian.

    A common sound change in place names is Latin Sanctus > Croatian Su-, as in Supetar = St. Peter.

    Sometimes you get political, or regime-induced name change:

    The port town of Ploče was founded after WW1 and has the reputation of being the town with the most name changes in Croatia:
    1 It started off with the locality name Ploča or Ploče, referring to rocks.
    2 Renamed Aleksandrovo during the dictatorship of King Aleksandar.
    3 Porto Tollero during the Italian occupation in WW2
    4 Back to Croatian: Ploče after the fall of Italy.
    5 In the 1950s renamed Kardeljevo after the Slovenian communist Edvard Kardelj, who otherwise had no connection with the town.
    6 Again back to Ploče in the 60s & 70s.
    7 Kardeljevo again in the 80s.
    8 finally Ploče following the first free elections in the 90s.

    The post office must have been busy keeping track of the changes.

  36. To get back to the fig. Russian has кукиш/kukish/figa/dulya/shish for the gesture, but I’m interested in цукиш. Has anyone speaking Ukrainian ever come across it? There was a Ukrainian guy at school who said it. In fact, he used it so often that eventually he got nicknamed Цукиш. (Another nickname of his was Что, что, что? Чего?, pronounced exactly as is written, which hardly any Russian speaker would do.)

  37. Lars Mathiesen says

    Lötzing was in the news today as the location of three properties owned or held to the ultimate benefit of Nikolay Tokarev,. “A known hotspot for rich Russians,” it seems.

  38. David Marjanović says

    who otherwise had no connection with the town.

    That’s normal. Karl Marx had never been to Karl-Marx-Stadt, and I’d be very surprised if Lenin ever went to Leninabad or Leninakan.

  39. Was a frequent guest on Russian TV in early 90s:

    В конце 1990 года участники группы «Мегаполис» задумали переложить некоторые советские шлягеры на немецкий язык, среди этих песен оказались и «Ландыши». Переводом текста занялся лидер группы Олег Нестеров, изучавший немецкий язык в школе с углублённым изучением языка. Поскольку немецкое название ландыша — Maiglöckchen («майский колокольчик») — не подходило для припева по ритму, надо было искать какую-то замену: в конце концов, пришла идея использовать название города Карл-Маркс-Штадт (ныне Хемниц). В результате перевод песни получился довольно свободным, но с сохранением общего смысла: «Heute hab’ ich dir gebracht / Schöne Blumen in der Nacht, / Keine Röslein leg’ ich dir ins Bett…» («Сегодня ночью я принёс тебе чудесные цветы. Но вовсе не розочки положил я тебе в постель…»), а припев звучал так: «Karl-Marx-Stadt, Karl-Marx-Stadt, / Du bist die Stadt roter Blumen, / Karl-Marx-Stadt, Karl-Marx-Stadt, / Aber ich mag nur weiß’» («Карл-Маркс-Штадт, Карл-Маркс-Штадт, город красных цветов… Карл-Маркс-Штадт, Карл-Маркс-Штадт, но мне-то нравятся только белые»). В 1992 году группа «Мегаполис» с успехом представила свои песни на немецком языке, включая «Карл-Маркс-Штадт», на концерте в Кёльне, а затем некоторые из них стали популярными и в России — их передавали по радио, а в 1994 году видеоклип с песней «Карл-Маркс-Штадт» завоевал один из главных призов на московском конкурсе «Поколение-94»[4].

    На японском языке песню «Ландыши» исполнял квартет «Dark Ducks» («Тёмные утки»). Существуют также варианты песни на чешском («Konvalinky, konvalinky…»)[13], английском, китайском и других языках[14].

  40. David Marjanović says

    ныне Хемниц

    Well, it’s spelled Chemnitz, but 1) most kinds of German can’t deal with word-initial /x/ and turn it into /k/, and 2) in this case the ch is purely ornamental anyway – the oldest attestation is Kameniz.

  41. Цукиш

    Nevr heard it. Does Цуканы fit the situation?

  42. Does Цуканы fit the situation?

    Not exactly. His surname was Дрожжук (Дрожук, Дражжук, Дражук), which sounds quite Ukrainian.

  43. PlasticPaddy says
  44. Yes, I know about цоканье in general, but it is a wrong geographic area and it is ч that is replaced with ц, not к. I know nothing about phonetics, but ц and к seem to be pretty far apart… Maybe кс cluster can exhange with ц, but here it is not the case either. Mystery!

  45. And last year David Marjanović wrote:

    Also, place names at the fringes of the Slavic settlement area were borrowed before the vowel shift, before the treatments of *ol *or, and before the Second Palatalization: Pola > Pula, Arba > Rab, Cherso > Cres (with [tsr-]), Saloniki > Solun (with -ik- evidently interpreted as the diminutive suffix and dropped).

  46. Поскольку немецкое название ландыша — Maiglöckchen («майский колокольчик») — не подходило для припева по ритму,
    Actually, it would have worked – in the German standard, the word has a first stressed syllable followed by two unstressed, exactly like lándyshj. I can only assume that Nesterov must have learnt German from someone who stresses such compounds on the second element (a regional phenomenon).
    And I remember that song, it was hard to escape from back then. Especially if you’re a German living in the former SU and people think they’re doing you a favour playing a “German” song 🙂

  47. John Cowan says

    most kinds of German can’t deal with word-initial /x/ and turn it into /k/,

    Most, really? s.v. Chemie says:

    Hochdeutsch: [çeˈmiː] (im nord- und mitteldeutschen Gebrauchsstandard auch [ʃeˈmiː]), im oberdeutschen Standard (und Schweizer und österreichisches Hochdeutsch): [keˈmiː] (im Schweizer Gebrauchsstandard auch [xeˈmiː]). I definitely learned to say [çeˈmiː], and likewise with all words in ch-, and the first auch suggests that there are definitely parts of Germany for which it is not merely a reading pronunciation.

  48. David Marjanović says

    Ah, yeah, not most.

    (im Schweizer Gebrauchsstandard auch [xeˈmiː])

    That’s not [x], that’s the characteristic [χ].

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