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

  • 2
    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, 2012 at 19:33

4 Answers 4


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


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!


If you look up the definition of fillip you will see that it is "a blow or gesture made by the sudden forcible straightening of a finger curled up against the thumb". This is where flip came from; where "the Bird" derived from I have no idea! But fillip pronounced flip is obvious.


It came from an English battle between the French over a Cliffside town. English and archers, the French saw the need to take out the archers middle finger so they could not train another generation of archers. The English subsequently won the war, and walked around the town with their middle finger still intact. They would show the Frenchman their middle finger and proclaim I can still flip the bird, a reference to an arrow. String on the bow, known as a yew, is also how we have flipping the bird and plucking the yew coming together as flipping the bird meaning fuck you

  • 3
    I'm afraid this is known to be nothing more than a legend (snopes.com/language/apocryph/pluckyew.asp) and the origins of both the swearing and the gesture certainly predate the 100 years war.
    – Ilythya
    Jun 6, 2014 at 14:36
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    Not only is this an urban legend but you have the gesture wrong. This is the alleged explanation of the V-sign.
    – Chenmunka
    Jun 6, 2014 at 14:48

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