The Bird Is the Word

Dear Matthew Alice,

I received this info from a friend in an e-mail. Is this true or real?? Or is it a joke?

The History of the Middle Finger. I feel compelled to send [this] to my more intelligent friends in the hope that they, too, will feel edified. 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 they would be incapable of fighting in the future. This famous English longbow was made of the native English yew tree, and the act of drawing the longbow was known as "plucking the yew" (or "pluck yew").... The English won a major upset and began mocking the French by waving their middle fingers at them, saying, "See, we can still pluck yew!" Since "pluck yew" is rather difficult to say, 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! It is also because of the pheasant feathers on the arrows used with the longbow that the symbolic gesture is known as "giving the bird."

-- John, via e-mail

John, that is the longest road to Idiot City we've ever been on. An absolute epic. European armies! Ancient weapons! Revenge fantasies! Invectives! Amputations! Anatomy! Botany! Ornithology! Etymology! Phonics! Semiotics! Labiodental fricatives! For me, the story finally jumped the shark when it reached the critical junction of "pluck" and the F-word. How hard is it to say "pluck"? How hard is it to say "pluck"?! Killing the English army would also prevent them from fighting in the future. Why line them up for amputation?

The middle finger, the longest finger on the hand, figured in expressive hand signs for centuries before Agincourt. According to anthropologist and gesture expert Desmond Morris, the earliest documented references are from ancient Rome, where the bird was flipped often and with great satisfaction. From the Roman context, it's clear that the gesture has always had a sexual connotation, specifically sodomy, and was even then considered "indecent." It was used by men toward other men and was done with the finger straight out, up, or down. There are variations, like the British backhand V, with middle and index fingers. But the international classic has been around for millennia. So the big bird goes to the joker who took the time to compose and circulate that Agincourt fable.

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