Thursday, October 7, 2010

Signs

Australian athletes are doing us proud in Delhi by expressing opinions on officials through the use of hand gestures. Wrestler Hassene Fakiri expressed his displeasure at being disqualified by the use of the middle finger salute, thereby also waving goodbye to his silver gong that he would still nonetheless have otherwise received. Now cyclist Shane Perkins has gone one finger better by giving officials a two finger salutation after he was disqualified.

Those finger comments pale in terms of emotion and significance when compared to the Arm of Honour of Polish athlete Władysław Kozakiewicz at the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow.


That incident has been the subject of a previous Bytes posting, read it at:

Kozakiewicz’s gesture is known as the bras d’honneur, French for “arm of honour”. Fakiri’s famous fatal finger is known as the doigt d'honneur, “finger of honour”.

The arm of honour is common in France, Southern Europe, the Mideast, and many other locations around the world to express a low opinion of the person or group to whom the gesture is directed. It may be accompanied by a slap upon the bicep of the raised arm.

Although its origin is uncertain, there is little doubt that the gesture is meant to be a powerful phallic symbol and that it is a reference to the anal passage, the effective comment being “Up yours!” The gesture is made all the more powerful by the arm ending in a threatening closed fist.

The same message is conveyed by the Finger of Honour, also known as “flipping the bird” and "giving the finger”. The gesture has been described in ancient Roman writing, where it is known as digitus impudicus (impudent finger) and it also appears in ancient Greek comedies as a means of insulting someone. Its widespread use throughout the world is attributed to the spread of Roman and Greek culture and civilsation.

Funnily enough, in some Arabic countries, especially Egypt, the message is conveyed not by extending the middle finger but by curling the middle finger inwards and extending the other fingers. The extended fingers and inwards middle finger are then pointed to the insultee by the insulter.

In some African and Caribbean countries an insult is conveyed by extending the palm towards the other person with all 5 fingers extended, the meaning being “you have 5 fathers”, thereby calling the person a bastard. Likewise in Greece the hand pointed at someone with all 5 fingers extended is an insult known as the Moutza. Some believes that this is a hangover from Byzantine days when excrement was rubbed onto the faces of criminals paraded through the streets.

A different form of impudent finger, but still with the same anal message, is the use of a thumbs up sign. In Iran, Afghanistan, Nigeria and parts of Italy and Greece it is an obscene insult, although in other cultures it may mean exactly the opposite, that something is okay (from the Roman days when the Emperor could let someone live by the thumbs up sign?). Likewise the symbol known as the fig, the thumb extended through the first and second fingers when the fist is closed, is considered an insult in some cultures such as France, Greece and Turkey but a good luck sign in others. In ancient Greece the symbol was thought to be representative of female genitalia and it therefore became a fertility gesture and good luck charm, which survives in Portugal and Brazil.


The two finger gesture, the reverse peace or reverse victory sign, is an insult that can be traced back to the 16rh century in England. Having the same anal significance as the finger and the arm, ie “up yours”, its origin is uncertain, one possibility being that it depicts the horns of the cuckold (a husband whose wife was cheating on him was said to grow horns, such that making a hand gesture of horns on the head is a great insult in countries such as Italy). Winston Churchill sometimes got his V-for-Victory sign the wrong way and thereby effectively gave two fingers to the people of England:




Which brings us to another interesting aspect: insulting signs change with time. This was already noted with the fig sign, above. In Shakespeare’s time it was an insult to bite one’s thumb at someone, equivalent to giving the finger, hence the following passage in Romeo and Juliet:
SAMPSON
Nay, as they dare. I will bite my thumb at them; which is a disgrace to them, if they bear it.

ABRAHAM
Do you bite your thumb at us, sir?

SAMPSON
I do bite my thumb, sir.

ABRAHAM
Do you bite your thumb at us, sir?

SAMPSON
[Aside to GREGORY] Is the law of our side, if I say ay?

GREGORY
No.

SAMPSON
No, sir, I do not bite my thumb at you, sir, but I bite my thumb, sir.
I’m off to send a Herogram to the Australian team management in Delhi suggesting that in future disgruntled athletes bite their thumbs instead of flipping a bird.  Keep an eye open for thumb biting from now on when you watch the Games.

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