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What is the origin/meaning of the phrase "flipping the bird"?

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Thanks to the answers, I now understand the question. The gesture is known to me through exposure to American media, but I had never heard the phrase and had no idea of its meaning. –  Colin Fine Apr 19 '12 at 19:33
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2 Answers

up vote 4 down vote accepted

Flipping seems pretty straightforward, so the real question here is, where did "the bird" come from?

Here's one account:

bird (3)
"middle finger held up in a rude gesture," slang derived from 1860s expression give the big bird "to hiss someone like a goose," kept alive in vaudeville slang with sense of "to greet someone with boos, hisses, and catcalls" (1922), transferred 1960s to the "up yours" hand gesture (the rigid finger representing the hypothetical object to be inserted) on notion of defiance and contempt. Gesture itself seems to be much older (the human anatomy section of a 12c. Latin bestiary in Cambridge describes the middle finger as that "by means of which the pursuit of dishonour is indicated").

Source: Online Etymology Dictionary

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The earliest use in print I found of the exact phrase "flip the bird" or "flipped the bird" or "flipping the bird" is from a 1967 Broadside (Volume 6, Issues 17-26).

(The Grateful Dead flipped "the bird" to the audience, tuned their instruments, blew up amps — for what seemed like FOREVER —then disappeared, leaving people disappointed and brought down.)

The gesture is much older. Flipping the Bird: The Origins of Everyone's Favorite Middle Finger Gesture tells us:

The Romans did not invent this gesture, however. The earliest recorded mention is a play "The Clouds", written by the Greek Aristophanes in 423 B.C. Even then, the middle finger has a clear, obscene and sexual use. It is unlikely that the ancient Greeks were the founders for flipping the birdie. More likely, flipping someone off goes back into prehistory.

Here's a 20th century translation of The Clouds:

SOCRATES: Well, to begin with,
they’ll make you elegant in company—
and you’ll recognize the different rhythms,
the enoplian and the dactylic,
which is like a digit.

STREPSIADES: Like a digit!
By god, that’s something I do know!

SOCRATES: Then tell me.

STREPSIADES: When I was a lad a digit meant this!

[Strepsiades sticks his middle finger straight up under Socrates’ nose]

SOCRATES: You’re just a crude buffoon!

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