Annals of obscene gestures

From today’s Miami Herald, a story on the wages of disrespect:

A woman facing a drug possession charge was sentenced to 30 days in jail for flipping the bird to a Miami-Dade judge.

Penelope Soto, 18, appeared in court on video after her arrest for possession of Xanax. In front of Circuit Judge Jorge Rodriguez-Chomat on Monday, she was asked about her assets.

Soto appeared as if the hearing was a big joke and laughed off the judge’s questions, blurted out “Adios” and then gave him the finger.

The judge, feeling disrespected, demanded she return to the podium and then sentenced her to 30 days in jail for contempt of court.

Judges do have that power.

Another chapter in the annals of phallicity, now on the gestural front.

The very brief history from Wikipedia:

In Western culture, the finger (as in giving someone the finger or the bird), also known as the finger wave, the middle finger, flipping someone off, flipping the bird or the one finger salute is an obscene hand gesture, often meaning the phrases “fuck off” or “fuck you”. It is performed by showing the back of a closed fist that has only the middle finger extended upwards, though in some locales the thumb is also extended. Extending the finger is considered a universal symbol of contempt. Many cultures use similar gestures to display their disrespect

The gesture dates back to Ancient Greece and was also used in Ancient Rome. Historically, it represented the phallus. In some modern cultures, it has gained increasing acceptance as a sign of disrespect, and has been used by music artists, athletes, and politicians. Many still view the gesture as obscene.

… Linguist Jesse Sheidlower traces the gesture’s development in the United States to the 1890s. According to anthropologist Desmond Morris, the gesture probably came to the United States via Italian immigrants. 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 the rival New York Giants.

One variant:

The gesture is the rough equivalent of the verbal insults fuck you or up yours or up your ass — all non-literal, not entailing sexual connection, and in fact canonically used by a man to a man, to demean the recipient of the insults and the gesture by treating him (metaphorically) as if he were being fucked by a man (that is, functioning like a woman). (Some time ago the insults and the gesture all came to be used without regard to the sex of the persons involved, though man-on-man is still clearly the most frequent use.)

There is a question, which seems to come up every so often in legal contexts, as to whether the gesture is merely offensive / insulting or whether it is actually obscene, which which bring down legal sanctions on the fingerer.

The very leading edge of a long and complex legal story involving the finger (from the NYT on January 4th, “Middle Finger Flashed in ’06 Lives On in Suit”, by Benjamin Weiser):

There is usually no mistaking the act or intent of extending a middle finger.

Take John Swartz, for example. In May 2006, Mr. Swartz was a passenger in a car in a rural part of upstate New York when he spotted a police car that was using a radar speed-tracking device.

Mr. Swartz, a Vietnam veteran and retired airline pilot, acted on instinct to show his displeasure: he extended his right arm outside the passenger’s side window, and then further extended his middle finger over the car’s roof.

The reaction was swift. The officer followed the car; words were exchanged; backups were called; and Mr. Swartz was arrested on a charge of disorderly conduct.

He later filed a civil rights lawsuit, and although a lower court judge dismissed the case, the prestigious United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in Manhattan reversed that decision on Thursday, ruling that Mr. Swartz’s lawsuit can go forward.

(The officer maintained he thought Swartz was calling for help, a — preposterous — position that has seriously muddied the legal waters.)

In any case, I would seriously recommend not giving the finger to a judge.


5 Responses to “Annals of obscene gestures”

  1. John Baker Says:

    The video seems to indicate that the contempt of court charge was more for the defendant’s remark, which was blanked out on the tape but described as her telling him “to ”f—” himself” in the article.

    In any case, the advice at the end of your post is correct: It isn’t the smartest thing in the world to give the finger to a police officer, but doing so to a judge in open court is seriously unwise.

  2. Z Says:

    Is the back of a closed fist that has both, the middle finger and the index finger extended upward – which stands for *f**k you” – a universal hand gesture?? I know that it’s used in Britain. Now I wonder whether Americans have that hand gesture, too, meaning the same.

  3. Will Says:

    Z: It also works in Australia and NZ, but I don’t know about the US and Canada.

    I think it’s also important to note that your index and ring fingers form balls to go with the phallus.

  4. John Says:

    Apparently, the judge accepted the friendly flipper’s apology and rescinded the 30-day sentence.

    I think the “V-sign” is understood in the US, but not by all. It’s certainly not used often. I see the “bras d’honneur” more often, but not nearly as much as the finger.

  5. The Czech finger | Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] an earlier posting on the finger, "Annals of obscene gestures" of […]

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