The gesture communicates moderate to extreme contempt, and is roughly equivalent in meaning to "fuck off," "fuck you," "shove it up your ass," "up yours," or "go fuck yourself." It is performed by showing the back of a hand that has only the middle finger extended upwards, though in some locales, the thumb is extended.
Extending the finger is considered a symbol of contempt in several cultures, especially in the West.
Many cultures use similar gestures to display their disrespect, although others use it to express pointing without intentional disrespect toward other cultures.
The gesture is usually used to express contempt but can also be used humorously or playfully.
The gesture dates back to Ancient Greece and it was also used in Ancient Rome. In some modern cultures, it has gained increasing recognition as a sign of disrespect, and has been used by music artists (notably more common among hardcore punk bands and rappers), actors, celebrities, athletes, and politicians. The index finger and ring finger besides the middle finger in more contemporary periods has been likened to represent the testicles.
The Cynic philosopher Diogenes, pictured by Gérôme with the large jar in which he lived; when strangers at the inn were expressing their wish to catch sight of the great orator Demosthenes, Diogenes is said to have stuck out his middle finger and exclaimed "this, for you, is the demagogue of the Athenians".
The first documented appearance of the finger in the United States was in 1886, when Old Hoss Radbourn, a baseball pitcher for the Boston Beaneaters, was photographed giving it to a member of their rival the New York Giants.In the film Speedy (1928), Harold Lloyd's character gives himself the finger into a distorting mirror at Luna Park, about 24 minutes into the film.The gesture has been involved in notable political events.During the USS Pueblo incident, in which an American ship was captured by North Korea, the captured American crewmembers often discreetly gave the finger in staged photo ops, thus ruining the North Koreans' efforts at propaganda.The North Koreans, ignorant of what the gesture meant, were at first told by the prisoners that it was a "Hawaiian good luck sign", similar to the shaka.When the guards finally figured things out, the crewmembers were subjected to extremely severe beatings.Nelson Rockefeller, then the Vice President of the United States, directed the gesture to hecklers at a 1976 campaign stop near Binghamton, New York, leading it to be called the "Rockefeller gesture".During World War II, the 91st Bombardment Group of the United States Army Air Forces referred to the gesture as the "rigid digit" salute.It was used in a more jocular manner, to suggest an airman had committed an error or infraction; the term was a reference to British slang terms for inattentiveness (i.e. The "order of the rigid digit" continued after the war as a series of awards presented by the veteran's association of the 91st, marked by wooden statuettes of a hand giving the single finger gesture.In 2005 during the war in Iraq, Gunnery Sergeant Michael Burghardt gained prominence when the Omaha World-Herald published a photo of Burghardt making the gesture towards Iraqi insurgents he believed to be watching after an improvised explosive device failed to kill him.The middle finger has been involved in judicial hearings.