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Body language can be a subtle thing – nuanced communication that’s easily muddled through unconscious signals, minute cultural differences, changing contexts or incorrect interpretation. But it can also be as unambiguous as the loudest shout – as with the famous, split-fingered V-sign.

Whether slyly flicked on the cheek (semi-disguised as a face-scratch), or launched into the air at the end of a outstretched arm to be visible at distance, this most salty of British gestures has always meant a clear and offensive ‘up yours’. Until now, perhaps. Because once it’s been used by an octogenarian, on camera, in the House of Lords, the two-fingered salute may have finally lost its ability to shock.

Jean Alys Barker – otherwise known as Baroness Trumpington – is no stranger to straight-talking. At 89 she is one of the last remaining members of the House of Lords to have served in World War II, as a Land Girl and at Bletchley Park. So when, during a debate, Lord King of Bridgwater made a comment about World War II survivors looking old, with a motion towards the Baroness, she responded with a stern expression and a magnificently defiant flash of her two digits. The BBC Parliament clip of the incident quickly became a YouTube hit. It wasn’t the first time the gesture has been spotted in parliament – John Prescott has been accused of using it in barely disguised forms on several occasions – but it is the most blatant, and the first documented example in the upper house.

“The bumbling teacher character in ‘The Goose Steps Out’ tells German agents that the V-sign is a warm greeting in Britain”

If the meaning of the V-sign is unambiguous, its history is anything but clear. The oft-repeated story propagated by
triviaphiles is that at the battle of Agincourt in 1415, the French were so fearful of the English longbow archers that they threatened to cut off their index and middle fingers to render them ineffective. The English therefore waved their intact fingers prior to battle in a show of defiance. This is almost certainly nonsense. Evidence offered for the explanation is sketchy at best, and since it’s likely that longbows of the time would have required at least three fingers to pull, it doesn’t really stand up to scrutiny.

The earliest actual evidence for the use of the V-sign is from 1901. When 800 rolls of nitrate film were uncovered in a Blackburn shop in 1994, they turned out to be an astonishing set of documentary footage of early twentieth-century Britain, produced by the Mitchell & Kenyon film company. In one piece of footage, of Parkgate Iron and Steel Co in Rotherham, a worker in a queue appears to take exception to being the subject of a documentary, and performs the salute. From this we can deduce that the V-sign dates back to at least the Edwardian era, as a working class gesture of displeasure.

The V-sign resurfaces during World War II. In the 1942 film ‘The Goose Steps Out’, Will Hay’s bumbling teacher character tells German agents that the gesture is a warm greeting in Britain – clearly suggesting that audiences would be aware that it was anything but. Winston Churchill occasionally flashed the sign, but appeared to use it interchangeably with the V-for-victory, reversed-hand form. He’s not the only one to have confused the different hand-orientations. On a 1992 visit to Australia – where, thanks to colonialism, the British gesture had the same meaning – US president George Bush gave what he thought was a
peace sign to a group of Canberra farmers protesting about US farm subsidies, inadvertently sending a very different message.

In the ’70s, the V-sign was the gesture of choice for punks and anti-establishment demonstrators. It retained its grassroots, patriotic overtones – memorably tapped into by The Sun newspaper with its 1990 front page ‘UP YOURS DELORS’ response to the then-President of the European Commission’s advocacy of a central European government. The V-sign was also a favourite among sportsmen, and in 1971, equestrian Harvey Smith was famously disqualified after winning the British Show Jumping Derby when he flicked the sign at the judges immediately after winning (the decision was later overturned). Another sportsman, British cyclist Mark Cavendish, somehow summoned the energy while crossing the winners’ line of the Tour de Romandie in 2010 to throw the V-sign at the awaiting banks of media. Despite apologising for his action (which he claimed was aimed at critics who “know jack shit about cycling”), he was made to withdraw from the competition.

Pointing the finger

In recent years, the V-sign has been under increasing threat from ‘the finger’ – the US-style, bird-flipping, mono-digit gesture. In Australia the finger is now the more common gesture than the V-sign (or as the Aussies call it, ‘the forks’), and even in Britain it is slowly taking over. Indeed, when BBC weatherman Thomasz Schafernaker responded in August 2010 to a comment about the accuracy of his impending report by the anchorman – camera cuts to Schafernaker, who makes a hilarious attempt to scratch his chin – it was the single finger that he used.

Adoption of the single finger by Anglo-Saxon nations has no doubt been helped by the ubiquity of American cultural output – TV shows, movies and endless images of celebrities expressing their displeasure to over-enthusiastic paparazzi. But actually the finger pre-dates the V-sign by some time, even if the doubtful Agincourt story is taken as fact.

The finger is referenced in a number of Roman texts, and was termed the “digitus impudicus” or “digitus infamis” (impudent or infamous finger). The Latin poet Marcus Valerius Martialis (who lived between 40 AD and 102-104 AD) writes in his second of 12 Epigrams: “Laugh loudly, Sextillus, when someone calls you a queen and put your middle finger out.” In another passage, a character “points a finger, an indecent one” at another.

And the historian Suetonius wrote in ‘De Vita Caesarum’ (‘The Twelve Caesars’) that the Emperor Augustus expelled an entertainer called Pylades from Rome “because with an obscene movement of his finger he turned all eyes upon a spectator who was hissing him” (a harsh punishment for dealing with a heckler).

“The V-sign has been under increasing threat from ‘the finger’ – the US-style, bird-flipping, mono-digit gesture”

The notion of a single finger being an evil and offensive gesture also crops up in the Bible, in Isaiah 58:9: “If thou take away from the midst of thee the yoke, the putting forth of the finger, and speaking vanity; and if thou draw out thy soul to the hungry, and satisfy the afflicted soul; then shall thy light rise in obscurity, and thy darkness be as the noonday.”

In this context, the V-sign seems like a fairly brief anomaly in the history of rude hand gestures. Since the single-finger has both the superior heritage – rooted in antiquity and the word of God – and the backing of American cultural imperialism behind it, it’s difficult to see how it can fail to triumph in the end.

After a least a century of proud service, from the filthy factories of Rotherham to the plush seats of the House of Lords, this mighty British gesture may finally be on its way out.

Two fingers, we salute you.

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