Each of the fingers has its own name: thumb, index, middle, ring and little finger. The third, or half finger o heart finger, also is called “digitus impudicus” “obscene finger.” Why?
Saint Isidore of Seville explains it in his Etymologies, XI, 71:
"The third is (called) impudent, because often it expresses vexation, insult"
Tertius impudicus, quod plerumque per eum opprobrii insectatio exprimitur.
The hand with its fingers is definitely the instrument's "hand" (forgive the pun) which the man has to help him in some functions: with finger he points and brands, with fingers he counts, with fingers he speeches (gestures language), with fingers he threats and insults.
There is a sign from ancient Greece which consists on extending the heart or middle finger of the hand and holding clenched the remaining finger; thus it is represented the figure of penis between the testicles. In antiquity it was an apotropaic sign and also obscene.
It is apotropaic because it it avents "the evil eye" (from Greek ἀποτρέπω apotrépō, "avent", out), of ἀπό (that apo, "away") and τρέπω ( "spin"), a word that means precisely "that puts aside” , in this case evils and calamities.
A similar figure, representing the same, it is the figa: the tip of the thumb between the heart and the index finger protrudes from the clenched fist of the hand or they are crossed the middle and index fingers.
Note: fica corresponds to the Latin word ficus, ancient fica, meaning and fig wart, tumor outgrowth in the private parts, usually at the anus. It also designates figuratively in slang female genitals, as at present in Spanish, and as the ancient Greek sukon, or in Italy, for example, figa fica is a popular name of the female genitals and from there the apotropaic and obscene meaning.
So an amulet representing a phallus or penis is hanged on children neck in Rome or standing at the entrance of houses, with this function. See article in which I discussed these issues:
Now it is not uncommon to find these figures or charms as mere decorative items hanging on neck of a boy or girl and in some cases also as a survival of an ancient superstition.
It's obscene because it means "fuck you ..." It is no need to be more explicit, because its meaning is clear. Also it use, despite its lack of elegance, is very common.
Note: the etymology of the Latin word "obscenus" is actually unknown, though some relate to the ob-scaena and explain it as "that which does not appear on the scene …"; relationship with "caenum", silt, mud, muck is absolutely unjustified.
Because it is an obscene sign, it is so called "impudicus digitus", obscene, dishonest, shameless finger…There the term "Infamis digitus" also appears.
Note: the word "infamis" composed of in-(negative preverb) and famis (from the verb femi in Greek, Latin fari) means "that can not or should not say"; so "in-fant" means "who not speech-yet-).
Talk about Greek references:
In Greek this gesture was known as the term "katapygon" (κατάπυγον, kata – κατά, "down" and puge – πυγή, "buttocks") and it also refers to the passive homosexual who is subjected to anal penetration .
In Greek comedy this gesture is an insult. So in Aristophanes' comedy The Clouds (423 BC) ll. 650 et seq. when Socrates is examining his pupil on the poetic meters, Strepsiades says he knows what a dactyl is and shows the finger.
Socrates: Come now; what do you now wish to learn first of those things in none of which you have ever been instructed? Tell me. About measures, or rhythms, or verses?
Strepsiades: I should prefer to learn about measures; for it is but lately I was cheated out of two choenices* by a meal-huckster.
Soc. I do not ask you this, but which you account the most beautiful measure; the trimetre or the tetrameter?**
Strep. Make a wager then with me, if the semisextarius *** be not a tetrameter.
Soc. Go to the devil! How boorish you are and dull of learning. Perhaps you may be able to learn about rhythms.
Strep. But what good will rhythms do me for a living?
Soc. In the first place, to be clever at an entertainment, understanding what rhythm is for the war-dance, and what, again, according to the dactyle.
Strep. According to the dactyle? By Jove, but I know it!
Soc. Tell me, pray.
Strep. What else but this finger? Formerly, indeed, when I was yet a boy, this here!
Soc. You are boorish and stupid.
(William James Hickie. London. Bohn. 1853?).
* The choenices amounted to little more than a liter (1.08)
** Socrates refers to the measure of verses and Strepsiades to capacity measures.
*** it is equivalent to four choenices
**** The gesture of the answer is a visual pun with two senses: the Greek word dactylos means "finger" and a foot or rhythmic measure composed of a long syllable and two short, as the joints of a finger (- ‿ ‿) and as the penis and two testicles.
Diogenes Laertius says about the philosopher Diogenes in "The Life and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers" VI.34 :
When some strangers expressed a wish to see Demosthenes, he stretched out his middle finger and said, "There goes the demagogue of Athens." (translated by Robert Drew)
Erasmus tells us this anecdote in his adage 1368:
I think it is relevant what, as I stated elsewhere, Diogenes Laertius said: that some foreigners wanted to see Demosthenes and he does not pointed him with index finger, but with middle finger up, indicating with this sign that he was little manly and somewhat effeminate. And soon after, in the same passage, he indicates that with the lifting of the middle finger it is expressed something obscene when he says that they are considered crazy who raise the middle finger, but not they who raise the index.
Huc arbitror pertinere, quod apud Laercium Diogenes, vt alibi diximus, hospitibus quibusdam Demosthenem videre cupientibus non indice digito, sed medio porrecto demonstrauit, parum virum innuens et effoeminatum. Ac paulo post eodem in loco satis indicat porrectione digiti medii quippiam obscoenum significari, cum ait insanos haberi, qui medium porrigant digitum, qui indicem, non item.
In "Epictetus. Dissertations by Arrian, III, 2.12 "it is narrated the same story but it is referred to an sophist without specify that he was Demosthenes:
Do you not know that Diogenes pointed out one of the sophists in this way by stretching out his middle finger? And then when the man was furious with rage, remarked: "That's So-and-so; I've pointed him out to you." For a man is not shown by the finger, as a stone or a piece of wood; but when any person shows the man's principles, then he shows him as a man.
Note: To point out a man with the middle finger was a way of showing the greatest contempt for him.
σκιμαλίζω means “jeer at,” “flout” , but the scholiast adds “to hold up the middle finger", as the tenth century Byzantine encyclopedia Suda explains the term Ἐσκιμάλισεν:
“[Meaning he/she/it] was insulting by joining the thumb to the middle finger and striking it. Or meaning gave the finger: for to flip off is strictly speaking to insert the middle finger into the anus of a bird. Not only this, but also when people want to humiliate someone they extend their middle finger, drawing the rest together, and show it to him. Aristophanes [writes](in Peace 549) : "[…] and how he flipped off the spear-maker.”
Erasmus then, many years later, collected in their Adagia the term and says in III, iii 87 (2287):
ΕΣΚΙΜΑΛΙΧΘΑΙ (eskimalichthai se chre) 2287
Ἐσκιμαλίχθαι σε χρή. With this gesture it is expressed an insult and the utmost contempt. For Greeks ἐσκιμαλίσαι (eskimalisai) consists in exposing the middle finger closing the others, to insult, or in expressing contempt with the snap of his fingers. Where (we read) in Juvenal, to what we have referred on another occasion:
he sent him to the gallows and showed him the middle finger (the nail).
The Suda cites this senarium of Aristophanes, located in Peace (ἐν Εἰρήνῃ)
Ὁ δὲ δρεπανουργὸς οὐχ ὁρᾷς ὡς ἤδεται,
Καὶ τὸν δορυξόον οἷον ἐσκιμάλισεν;
That is: Do you not see how the manufacturer of sickles is gesturing and he makes the lancer with middle finger (nail)?
But who wants to know what properly means ἐσκιμαλίζειν (eskimalisein), I'd rather you learn in the Suda than from me. It has been target as elegance and with proverbial sense to the luck or scholarship or something else, to express absolute rejection.
Ἐσκιμαλίχθαι σε χρή. Hoc gestu contumeliam despectumque supremum
significabant. Est enim Graecis ἐσκιμαλίσαι medium digitum ostendere con-
tractis caeteris, ignominiae causa, aut strepitu digitorum significare contemp-
tum. Vnde et apud Iuuenalem, quod alibi retulimus:
Mandaret laqueum mediumque ostenderet vnguem.
Suidas citat ex Aristophane senarium hunc•, extat autem ἐν Εἰρήνῃ:
Ὁ δὲ δρεπανουργὸς οὐχ ὁρᾷς ὡς ἤδεται,
Καὶ τὸν δορυξόον• οἷον ἐσκιμάλισεν; id est
An non vides, vt gestiat falcis faber
Medioque monstret vngue lancearium?
Quid autem proprie significet ἐσκιμαλίζειν, qui scire cupiet, malo e Suida
discat quam ex me. Elegantius magisque prouerbialiter ad fortunam, ad
eruditionem aut aliud quippiam, quod plane contemnitur, detorquebitur.
The previous occasion that Erasmus referred is the adage 1367, that is in which the verse in Juvenal Satire 10 53 is cited; Juvenal says that Democritus sent to the gallows the menacing fortune and sent it to “fuck off” in current and vulgar language.
He sent him to the gallows and showed him the middle finger (the nail)
Mandaret laqueum mediumque ostenderet vnguem
Mandare laqueum means "to hang you!
Erasmus also in the following adage, 1368, explains at length what "medium ostendere digitum” means:
Also they expressed the utmost contempt with middle finger raised.
Medio item digito porrecto supremum contemptum significabant
And in that same adage he quotes Martial and his “Et digitum porrigito medium” of Book II and how he calls this finger "impudicum". Also he quotes Persius, who calls it "infamous" and also he refers to the story of Diogenes that we have narrated above. And also to Satyricon.
Consider these references:
Martial. II, 28, 2.
Scoff much at him who calls you, Sextillus, a ,
and push out your middle finger. 2 Indeed you are
no , nor are you, Sextillus, an adulterer, nor
have Vetustina's hot lips delight for you. None of
those things are you, I confess, Sextillus : what then
are you ? I don't know ; but you know two things *
remain. (Translation by Walter C.A. Ker, M.A.)
Note: * He seems to imply that refers to fellatio and cunnilingus.
Rideto multum qui te, Sextille, cinaedum
Dixerit et digitum porrigito medium.
Sed nec paedico es nec tu, Sextille, fututor,
Calda Vetustinae nec tibi bucca placet.
Ex istis nihil es, fateor, Sextille: quid ergo es?
Nescio, sed tu scis res superesse duas.
Martial. VI, 70, 5.
A sixtieth summer, Marcianus, has gone, and I
think already a second one also, over Cotta's head,
and yet he cannot recall that even for a single day
he has felt the weariness of a fevered bed. He points
his finger and the insulting finger at Alcon, and
Dasius, and Symmachus. As for us, let our years be
strictly counted, and so much of them as harsh fevers
have carried off, or sore weakness, or racking pains,
be parted from happier life : we are children, and
seem old men. He who thinks the life of Priam
and of Nestor long, Marcianus, is much deceived and
mistaken : life is not living, but living in health.
(Translation by Walter C.A. Ker, M.A.)
Sexagesima, Marciane, messis
Acta est et, puto, iam secunda Cottae,
Nec se taedia lectuli calentis
Expertum meminit die vel uno.
Ostendit digitum, sed inpudicum,
Alconti Dasioque Symmachoque.
At nostri bene computentur anni
Et quantum tetricae tulere febres
Aut languor gravis aut mali dolores,
A vita meliore separentur:
Infantes sumus, et senes videmur.
Aetatem Priamique Nestorisque
Longam qui putat esse, Marciane,
Multum decipiturque falliturque.
Non est vivere, sed valere vita est.
Y Persio en sus Sátiras: 2, 33.
Look here — a grandmother or a superstitious aunt has taken
baby from his cradle, and is charming his forehead and his slavering
lips against mischief by the joint action of her middle finger and
her purifying spittle ; for she knows right well how to check
the evil eye. (Translation by John Conington, M.A
Ecce avia aut metuens divum matertera cunis
Exemit puerum, frontemque atque uda labella
Infami digito et lustralibus ante salivis
Expiat, urentis oculos inhibere perita;
Suetonius, speaking about Augustus’s interest in putting discipline in public show, tells us about the actors of theater, Life of Augustus, 45, 4
He went so far in restraining the licentiousness of stageplayers, that upon discovering that Stephanio, a performer of the highest class, had a married woman with her hair cropped, and dressed in boy's clothes, to wait upon him at table, he ordered him to be whipped through all the three theatres, and then banished him. Hylas, an actor of pantomimes, upon a complaint against him by the praetor, he commanded to be scourged in the court of his own house, which, however, was open to the public. And Pylades he not only banished from the city, but from Italy also, for pointing with his finger at a spectator by whom he was hissed, and turning the eyes of the audience upon him. (J. Eugene Reed. Alexander Thomson. Philadelphia. Gebbie & Co. 1889.)
nam histrionum licentiam adeo compescuit, ut Stephanionem togatarium, cui in puerilem habitum circumtonsam matronam ministrasse compererat, per trina theatra uirgis caesum relegauerit, Hylan pantomimum querente praetore in atrio domus suae nemine excluso flagellis uerberarit et Pyladen urbe atque Italia summouerit, quod spectatorem, a quo xibilabatur, demonstrasset digito conspicuumque fecisset.
And no doubt Suetonius refers to this sign of Caligula when he says about one of the insulted victims who killed later him, in life of Caligula, 56, 2
The conspirators having resolved to fall upon him as he returned at noon from the Palatine garies, Cassius Charea, tribune of the pretorian guards, claimed the part of making the onset. This Chaerea was now an elderly man, and had been often reproached by Caius for effeminacy. When he came for the watchword, the latter would give "Priapus," or "Venus;" and if on any occasion he returned thanks, would offer him his hand to kiss, making with his fingers an obscene gesture. (J. Eugene Reed. Alexander Thomson. Philadelphia. Gebbie & Co. 1889.)
Cum placuisset Palatinis ludis spectaculo egressum meridie adgredi, primas sibi partes Cassius Chaerea tribunus cohortis praetoriae depoposcit, quem Gaius seniorem iam et mollem et effeminatum denotare omni probro consuerat et modo signum petenti 'Priapum' aut 'Venerem' dare, modo ex aliqua causa agenti gratias osculandam manum offerre formatam commotamque in obscaenum modum.
Petronius, Satiricón, 131, 4:
The old woman meantime drew from her pocket a hank of plaited yarns of different colors, and tied it round my neck. Then puddling dust and spittle together, she dipped her middle finder in the mess, and disregarding my repugnance, marked my forehead with it.
Never despair! Priapus I invoke,
To help the parts that make his altars smoke.
The incantation ended, she bade me spit out thrice, and thrice toss pebbles into my bosom,
(Translated by Alfred R. Allinson; 1930)
Illa de sinu licium prolulit varii coloris filis intortum, cervicemque vinxit meam. Mox turbatum sputo pulverem medio sustulit digito, frontemque repugnantis signavit. <. . .>
Hoc peracto carmine ter me iussit expuere terque
Note: someone said on some occasion that Tacitus told somewhere how the Germans made such a gesture to the Roman legions; it seems he is Thomas Conley, a professor emeritus of communication and classics at the University of Illinois, who has written about the rhetoric of insults, but in no passage in Tacitus, as far as I know, figure that fact; is therefore probably one of many false quotes that unscrupulous individuals in his writings introduced without testing the source, the better, without the least rigor. What these disparate joys help for understanding of history?
So it is sufficiently attested the old equation "middle finger = phallus, penis" and fingers on each side are the testicles; the meaning of exhibiting or presenting someone that finger is clearly an insult.
Note: the insult is known by the vast majority of Americans as “giving the finger” or “flipping the bird”, “short the bird”.
The famous anthropologist Desmond Morris says:
"It's one of the most ancient insult gestures known. The middle finger is the penis and the curled fingers on either side are the testicles. By doing it, you are offering someone a phallic gesture. It is saying, 'this is a phallus' that you're offering to people, which is a very primeval display." ( Daniel Nasaw; BBC News Magazine, Washington, 6 February 2012).
It is notable how this gesture, that comes from ancient Greece and Rome, has come to our time and has spread widely as a sign of insult, disrespect, obscene gesture among many social groups. Probably it is the oldest and most widespread worldwide insult gesture. Instead it has lost its apotropaic value, deterrent of evil eye.
It is everywhere and every times: it has been used by politicians, singers, artists, sportsmen; it has penetrated completely in today's society; it is certainly the preferred reaction violent of car drivers, etc.. Yet the gesture is genuine tacky and rude today as it was yesterday.
In summary of this obscene generalization, I will reproduce, for example, a shocking photograph of the famous Lady Di performing this gesture. Photograph is false, it is an assembly and therefore it does not cease to be a fraud, but it reinforces the importance of the extension and generalization of gesture in our society that produces such compositions: the photograph is part of an exhibition at the Pompidou Museum in Metz titled "Paparazzi"; it is the work of "paparazzo" Alison Jackson, who titled "Diana: finger-up." And it was echoed by the Spanish newspaper (probably many others as well) El País, February 25, 2014.
Or this photograph published in the Spanish newspaper El Mundo, the day March 9, 2014 to illustrate the article: A naturally violent species. / Spanish scientists argue in an essay that human aggression as a biological trend that can not be eradicated.
Or this one of a member of a famous feminist group of Spanish “El Mundo”. Day March 29, 2014)
Or this one of a famous footballer:
Or these of known politicians
We could reproduce thousands of photographs to this effect in the strangest situations, but these are enough.