Mr. Alice: When and where did the displaying of one’s middle finger to another originate, AND is there an “official” or “proper” name for the gesture, AND how did it come to represent expressions of anger, rudeness, and defiance, AND why do we derive such pleasure/relief when partaking in it? — Joe Lilly, San Diego
When and where? At least 2000 years ago, probably in Rome, according to the oldest documentation. It was so well known that the crude and loony emperor Caligula is said to have extended his middle finger each time he presented his hand to be kissed in respect. It has no “proper” name, since usually you just do it, not talk about it. But FYI, the Romans nicknamed the longest, middle finger the digitus impudicus in honor of the popular insult.
Hand gestures, rude and otherwise, are found everywhere on the globe, once exclusively a man’s pastime. And what better way to insult another man than to impugn his sexuality, a symbol of power and status. “The finger” has always represented this idea of sexual, and thus, overall dominance. As for the gesturer’s pleasure/relief, well, speak for yourself, Joe: It’s an anonymous, nonverbal outlet for anger, especially when you’re too far away or too scared to actually pop somebody in the jaw.
And of course, who can think of flipping someone the bird without immediately thinking “freeway”? Personally, I think psychiatrists are missing a good bet. Why stretch out a client on a comfortable couch in a quiet room and then ask, “Well, what’s eating you these days?” I suggest therapy would go a whole lot faster if the shrink climbed into the car with us after a long day at the office and watched us drive home in rush-hour traffic. It would be a capsule demonstration of all our frustrations and aggressions and would probably save us a pile of analysis fees.