I'm a huge fan of the hallowed American tradition of raising the middle finger to those individuals (and there are so many of them) who have wronged us in some way.

This valuable and eminently necessary gesture has at some point gained the nickname "the bird," which is both indescribably charming and extremely inscrutable, as nothing about it would seem to suggest birds in any way.

How did this indispensable gesture come to be associated with our avian friends, who would seem to have nothing to do with the concept? OED and Merriam-Webster are no help. This question from six years ago, which purports to answer the question, is singularly unsatisfying. Please help.

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    Nevertheless, it's a duplicate of What's the origin of "flipping the bird"?. If you want further analysis, the correct procedure is to offer a bounty at the original. Commented Jun 22, 2018 at 22:16
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    Ah, phenry, we've missed you! And this question is worthy of your homecoming.
    – Dan Bron
    Commented Jun 23, 2018 at 1:20
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    Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang (1994) has a first cited occurrence of "the bird" in the sense of "the finger" from 1966, by which time "bird" had already been used to signify "booing or hissing of a player or performance" (1825), "Bronx cheer" (1921), "ridicule, mockery, or rejection in any form" (1925), "the penis" (1902), and "the vulva or vagina" (1960). As for "the finger," RHHDAS cites its use (in McMurtry's Horseman, Pass By) in 1961, but adds parenthetically, "Despite the dates, this is unquestionably the orig. sense; cf. syn. L digitus impudicus."
    – Sven Yargs
    Commented Jun 23, 2018 at 1:51
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    I posted an answer because I could tell the question would be closed if no one did. The original question is asking about the expression "flipping the bird", this Q is about the single term "the bird". Close. Very. But not an exact duplicate.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Jun 23, 2018 at 6:25

1 Answer 1


I still don't understand "why" the middle finger is called the bird in English... Oh, wait. Maybe it's a direct translation of an Italian expression? After all, “Between 1900 and 1915, 3 million Italians immigrated to America

In Italian, the colloquial, and rude word for penis is "uccello" which means bird.

From Late Latin aucellus, contracted form of Vulgar Latin *avicellus, diminutive of Latin avis, from Proto-Italic *awis, from Proto-Indo-European *h₂éwis. Compare French oiseau, Catalan ocell, Occitan aucèl, Neapolitan auciello, Sicilian aceddu, Friulian uciel, Venetian oxeło, Ligurian öxéllo, Romansch utschè.

In some Spanish dialects, a penis is commonly called a pájaro (bird), and in Catalan, the term polla (young chicken) is used.

The slang meaning of bird is also used in several Asian languages

A calque from various Asian languages that use "bird" as a slang term for "penis", including Malay burung, Chinese 鳥, and Tagalog ibon.

  • (Asian slang) A penis.

Of significant relevance is the English and vulgar term for penis, cock, the "male of the domestic fowl" and not originally the shortened form of cockerel. Since the 1610s, the term cock has referred to the penis in the English language.

The male of the domestic fowl (along with the bull) has been associated in many lands since ancient times with male vigor and especially the membrum virile, but the exact connection is not clear (the cock actually has no penis) unless it be his role as fertilizer of the domestic hens, and there may be some influence from cock (n.2) in the "tap" sense.

Many thanks to @user10518 who posted the following excerpt in the comments below.

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    I’ve never suspected a connection between the middle finger and “the bird” and I’ve never heard it called that way. The gesture, nonetheless, might have been imported from Italy, as suggested here: “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.”
    – user 66974
    Commented Jun 23, 2018 at 6:04
  • @user110518 that's a good reference. May I use it? Do you have the link?
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Jun 23, 2018 at 6:23
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    Yes, en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_finger
    – user 66974
    Commented Jun 23, 2018 at 6:37
  • User1110518's reference is fine but this link has a fuller quote from Morris... en.antiquitatem.com/digitus-impudicus-giving-the-finger who describes it as a primeval display, citing Daniel Nasaw, BBC News Magazine, Washington, 6 February 2012, as the source.
    – user97231
    Commented Jun 23, 2018 at 12:57

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