Well pluck a duck!
Jessie J Emerson seeks reassurance about the phrase giving the bird after hearing of an alleged explanation for it on radio.
"I recently received the message below regarding the origin and accompanying had gesture," Jessie wrote. "Truth or fiction?"
(At) the Battle of Agincourt the French, who were overwhelmingly favored to win, threatened to cut a certain body part off of all captured English soldiers so that they could never fight again. The English won in a major upset and waved the body part in question at the French in defiance. The puzzler was: What was this body part? This is the answer submitted by a listener:
Sorry Jessie, the message is a tongue-in-cheek attempt to explain the origins of both giving the bird and fuck. Sadly, however, it is completely untrue - as the writer knew well. First, giving the bird is almost certainly 19th century slang, deriving from the theatre. I'm guessing here, but it probably comes from the whistles of derision an audience would direct at a poor performer.
Second, the origin of fuck is discussed elsewhere in Word for Word, in a section which dismisses hypotheses about its origin including that it is an acronym stemming from either Fornicate Under Command of the King or For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge.
However the Agincourt story may have SOME truth in it.
The conventional wisdom is that the body part the French threatened to remove was (were) the index and middle fingers, which the English archers not only needed but liked having. After the battle, said English archers stuck their fists in the air at the French, holding the two fingers up in the shape of a V. This gave rise to the British V-sign of contempt, which in these vulgar days is taken to mean fuck off.
The story goes on that during World War II Winston Churchill decided to use the V-sign for his V for Victory gesture, but was persuaded to modify it so that the inhabitants of London's working class East End wouldn't collapse with laughter.
Accordingly, he turned his hand around and made the V-sign with his palm facing outwards. Both the Agincourt and Churchill sections of this account are treated as gospel truth by many people. I have no reason to doubt the Churchill aspect, but I suspect that the Agincourt section is yet another example of unreliable folklore (I was tempted to write "folk etymology" but gestures don't have etymologies).
If anyone can prove or disprove the V-sign story, please do so.
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