One Finger Is Worth a Thousand Words - What the F: What Swearing Reveals About Our Language, Our Brains, and Ourselves - Benjamin K. Bergen

What the F: What Swearing Reveals About Our Language, Our Brains, and Ourselves - Benjamin K. Bergen (2016)

Chapter 3. One Finger Is Worth a Thousand Words

Sometime when you’re in public—in a park or a restaurant—take a good look at humans and how they communicate. To do this right, you need to suspend what you already know, or think you know, so it helps to imagine yourself as someone with absolutely no prior expectations. Someone like an anthropologist from Mars.1 Pretend that you’re here to study the humans, and just watch what they do to communicate. As a Martian anthropologist, you will surely note how much flailing about there is of parts of the body that contribute strictly nothing to the sounds of the words. Fists shake. Heads cock. Shoulders shrug.

The visible body, deployed appropriately, can do a lot of communicative work—from requesting the time to conveying the size of a drink order. You see this most obviously when vocal-tract calisthenics are of no use, like when a person’s mouth is full or when he or she doesn’t speak the local vernacular. But physical gestures are also deployed as intentional communicative acts of their own. An A-OK gesture tells a pilot he’s cleared for takeoff. A Check-Please gesture summons an attentive waiter. And the Bird, well, you know what that does. Across a room, across the world, across the lifespan, people silently convey information using visible movements of their bodies. Words tell only part of the story of how we communicate; gestures tell the rest.

Gestures like those mentioned above are so rich with conventionalized meaning within a culture that they can replace words. This also makes them relatively easy to detect. But these emblematic gestures are merely the tip of the manual iceberg. Most speech is accompanied by often subtler and unnoticed gestures. Sometimes a finger can provide information redundant with the words it accompanies—a contestant on a dating show might punctuate the words I choose Mary by pointing to the lucky winner. But movements of the hands, head, and torso can also encode information beyond what’s strictly conveyed by words. For instance, suppose someone with a wry sense of humor says, “Oh yeah, I had a great time at the opera.” Did she really? Or is she being sarcastic? Her body might tell you. Suppose she accompanies the words with a roll of her eyes and a flick of her wrist in the form of the Jerk-Off gesture on the next page. Probably not an opera lover.

Source: David Bergen

Source: David Bergen.

People often gesture when it’s useful to the person they’re speaking to, like when giving directions. But they also gesture when it’s not, like when there’s no one to see them. You’ve probably caught yourself gesticulating when talking on the phone or when staging imaginary conversations in the shower (telling off some self-important PTA member or delivering your Nobel Prize acceptance speech). People gesture even when it couldn’t possibly benefit listeners because the listener is a newborn infant or a blind person.2 Gestures like these that accompany and complement speech will make up the preponderance of the communicative body movement that you, the Martian anthropologist, will notice.

But unlike you, Martian anthropologist, we mere humans only rarely take conscious note of all this vigorous activity of the arms, head, and torso. One way this manifests is that we rarely consider gestures important enough to enshrine in written language, with the exception of certain emoticons like  width= (which is supposed to be a shrug, but is really rare because try typing that on your phone!). Very occasionally, you’ll come across gestures transcribed in words, like *shrug* or *sigh*, but these are vanishingly rare. A more recent innovation, emojis, can encode limited gestures, like Thumbs-Up, A-OK, and even the Bird. Nevertheless, these remain limited to certain users and contexts. Gestures are mostly absent from written descriptions of pretty much any human interaction. For example, scripts and screenplays contain lots of words for people to say but only the occasional direction regarding gesture. And even when gestures might matter most to people’s lives, in court transcripts, they’re again mostly absent or at best vague. For instance, consider this example of courtroom dialogue from the Alaska Shorthand Reporters Association:3

Source: David Bergen

Source: David Bergen.

Q.Did you see the driver of the other car?

A.(Nods head)

Q.Can we have an audible answer, please? The reporter can’t take down a nod or shake of the head.


Q.How tall would you say the other driver was?

A.About this tall.

Q.That’s about five-foot-eight?

A.No. More like six feet.

Notice how problematic gestures are here. Court stenographers are the best real-time transcribers of language known to humankind, but even they can’t encode everything important and meaningful about gestures. On the rare occasion when a gesture does make its way into the written record, it still remains vague—for instance, “(Nods head).” From a description like this, it’s impossible to know if it was a nod with conviction, a hesitating nod, or any other kind. Because the head nod could convey information about the witness’s certainty, it could be invaluable to the proceedings. But even in court, the overwhelming majority of gestures go unrecorded. The way a witness shrugs her shoulders or scrunches her eyes, the trajectory she uses with her hand to depict how a car came to an abrupt or careening stop—gestures like these mostly don’t make their way into writing because they rarely permeate our consciousness. In short, we largely treat communication as primarily about words, with gestures being optional add-ons.a

This could be a positive feedback loop. We might fail to write down gestures because we don’t think they’re important, and we might think they’re not important in part because we don’t have easy ways to write them down. I do hope someone will figure out what causes what.

Those gestures that we do notice tend to be the profane ones. For example, a lake of ink was spilled during Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign as political observers asked, did Obama just flip someone the Bird? On April 17, 2008, the Los Angeles Times observed that in a speech, he scratched his face with his middle finger while describing Hillary Clinton’s debate performance.4 And it happened again during his victory speech in November of the same year while he was praising his defeated opponent, John McCain.5 We can’t know whether his middle finger betrayed what he really thought about his political opponents or whether his nose just itched. But his finger had a way of riling people up.

To understand how humans communicate, we have to tackle gesture. And many of the same things one might want to know about words are also important to ask about gestures. What do they mean? Where do they come from? Why do we use the gestures we do? How similar and how different are they across cultures?

Taking a cross-linguistic, cross-cultural view—the same strategy we adopted when asking questions about words—most clearly reveals the answers to these questions. The trick is to find gestures that do roughly equivalent work in each language—that have largely homologous meanings. When we applied this strategy to words, we noted that the word fuck translates into foreign words that are as different as they can be; nothing about the sound or spelling of French baiser or Chinese cào makes them better or worse words for that particular meaning than any other sequence of sounds or letters.

But with gesture, finding these equivalents is more challenging. Take just the earlier examples. Many cultures don’t have a specific gesture for calling a waiter—because this act is so dependent on a particular type of social interaction. Same with the A-OK gesture. And the list goes on. There are few equivalents around the world for familiar North American gestures like the Loser (an L on the forehead) or the Chicken (bent elbows moving up and down to depict chicken wings, among various other manifestations).6 Likewise, it’s easy to find examples of gestures native to other cultures that would be unfamiliar in North America. For instance, in France there’s a gesture called Quelle Barbe (“What a Beard!”), in which the backs of the fingers rub the side of the cheek (in the beard location). It means something like “boring.” The closest American equivalent might be Whoopdeedoo, where an upward-pointing index finger describes a circle in front of the body. Or the best approximation might be Twiddling-Thumbs. But neither is exactly right. Whoopdeedoo generally indicates the unimportance of whatever’s under discussion rather than boredom experienced by the gesturer. And my sense is that Twiddling-Thumbs indicates inaction and impatience more than pure boredom.

Another French gesture without a clear local analog is On Se Tire (“Let’s get out of here”), which also appears in Italy and elsewhere in southern Europe. You can see it on the next page. There’s not really much in North America or, as far as I can tell, in most places around the world to compare this to directly. The closest thing here to On Se Tire might be Round-’Em-Up, which actually looks a lot like Whoopdeedoo—index pointing upward, describing a circle.b But Round-’Em-Up appears to be much less widespread than On Se Tire.

It seems to me, from scattered observations, that Round-’Em-Up is generated by rotation at the elbow, whereas Whoopdeedoo comes more from the wrist. But this is only a hunch.

We can already see that the conventional gestures in languages convey diverse meanings. This starts to answer the question about how universal gestures are. In absolute terms, they aren’t universal in either form or meaning. This diversity of gestures around the world also makes it hard to answer the second-order question: In those cases where you do find gestures with similar meanings across languages, how similar do they look?

To answer this question, we have to find meanings that gestures are more consistently deployed to encode in the world’s languages. Gestures get used for a small set of very common things. One of these is pointing. People point differently in different places; in Japan, you point to yourself by putting your index finger to your nose;7 in parts of Papua New Guinea, you point with your nose!8 But pointing appears consistently. Another of the usual suspects is using the hands to depict space—to show the size or relative locations of things. People across cultures also gesture to greet and beckon to one another. And finally, around the world people use gestures to offend.

French gesture On Se Tire. Source: Sylvain LeLarge,

French gesture On Se Tire. Source: Sylvain LeLarge,

Naturally, we’re going to focus on the last of these. And so we ask, how do people around the world use gestures to insult, to demonstrate disdain, to deprecate? What movements of the body are offensive and why? How similar are the profane gestures of the world’s languages? And do any universal principles govern them? To answer these questions, we go on a tour of Birds of the world.

# $ % !

Let’s begin with the basic facts. The Bird (or the Middle Finger) is of course a big deal in North America. It’s our most censored and most disputed gesture because it lives at the intersection of high frequency and high offensiveness. The Bird has varied uses, but these largely track with what the expressions Fuck you and Fuck off can do. Like these, its linguistic analogs, it can be aggressive or dismissive, but it can also be used jocularly.

The association in people’s minds between aggression and extending this one particular finger is strong. We know this from experimental work. One study asked people to extend either their middle finger or their index finger while reading a passage.9 The passage ambiguously described a made-up person, Donald, who could be interpreted as either aggressive or justifiably assertive (for instance, he refuses to pay his rent, but only after his landlord fails to make repairs—aggressive or assertive?). People extending their middle finger rated Donald as significantly more aggressive than did people extending their index finger. So one finger—as long as it’s the correct finger—can change how aggressively you interpret people’s behavior.

The Bird has spread throughout the world, at least in part through the penetrating cultural influence exerted by American media. And yet, if you take a trip beyond our borders, you’ll find that in many places the Bird won’t fly. In some regions, the middle finger is just another digit to count or point with. For instance, in East Asia, the middle finger has traditionally had no notable profane association (although in recent years the Bird has been spreading its wings there too).

Instead, around the world, there exist local Birds with different colors and plumage—gestures that convey aggression and disdain differently from the Bird. Some of these endogenous analogs look like close cousins of our Bird. For instance, the British equivalent uses both the middle and the index fingers in a V-shape. (Why the Brits need two fingers where we need just one is beyond the scope of our consideration here.)

You can detect a family resemblance to the Bird in the Up-Yours gesture (also known as the Bras d’Honneur, French for “Arm of Honor”) used in southern and western Europe, among many other places. In it, the fist of the dominant hand rises, palm inward, often emerging from under the nondominant forearm. This gives it a similar overall shape to the Bird but using different body parts on a larger scale.

Source: David Bergen

Source: David Bergen.

And if you want to stretch the comparison, you might find some similarity between these gestures and a profane one used in Iran and Afghanistan,10 among other countries, which looks a lot like our Thumbs-Up. Like the Bird, it uses an upward-pointing digit, although instead of the middle finger, it’s the thumb. This gesture is usually interpreted as indicating a thumb up somewhere very specific, a place where a thumb could be surprising and/or uncomfortable.

And also in the realm of plausible similarity is a Russian gesture (used elsewhere in eastern and southern Europe as well) that looks a lot like what Americans do when we pretend to steal a child’s nose. This, the so-called Fig, with the thumb sticking out between the curled index and middle fingers, is a slightly milder version of our Bird.

But as we continue our tour, we find gestures that are less and less similar in overall shape and detailed morphology to the Birds we know—gestures that don’t extend a finger or fist upward. Brazil has a gesture that uses the handshape of our A-OK (thumb and index forming a circle, with other digits extended) but orients the palm toward the gesturer’s own body, with the outside of the thumb-index circle pointing outward. You can see an example on the next page. This gesture is a profane analog of our Bird—it’s the rough manual equivalent of Fuck you. Or take the Mountza, an offensive and denigrating Greek gesture formed with all five fingers extended and the palm exposed. It looks a lot like the Talk-to-the-Hand gesture in North America but has the referential force of the middle finger.

These differences in the ways people around the world use their bodies to communicate are important. In practical terms, as a visitor to some foreign country, you generally don’t want to accidentally give someone the local equivalent of the Bird. Conversely, you do need to know how to manually convey forceful meaning even when you don’t speak the local vernacular, whether it’s to a cab driver who tries to overcharge you or a maître d’ who refuses to seat you. That’s when a finger (or two) really proves its worth. But the world’s remarkable diversity of profane flicks of the wrist also starts to reveal—as we’ll see in a moment—why gestures take the particular forms they do.

Source: David Bergen

Source: David Bergen.

# $ % !

You’ll recall that with respect to words, the different or similar ways a word is translated across languages provide evidence on how arbitrary its sound is. We know, for instance, that the two consonants and one vowel of fuck don’t have any special relationship to the meaning they combine to convey, and we know this in part because other languages use totally different sounds to convey the same meaning—French baiser, Spanish cojer, Chinese cào, and so on. This is the principle of arbitrariness. Modern English has the word fuck because hundreds of unpredictable little things happened over thousands of years to create just the conditions for that word to emerge and be shaped to the point that it means just what it means and sounds just the way it sounds.

When we ask the same question about gestures, we get a slightly different but equally complicated answer. Compare the Bird, the British Bird, the Fig, and the various other ways people use their hands to display disdain and to denigrate. Are these gestures arbitrary, in the same way the words of the spoken languages they accompany are? They’re certainly articulated in different ways. The Bird has a totally distinct form from the Fig, for example. It uses a different handshape and a different palm orientation. (And that’s not even considering the variants of the Bird—one where the middle finger erupts from a closed fist and another where it’s flanked by the bent knuckles of the index and ring fingers.) The British Bird uses one hand and two extended fingers. The Up-Yours uses two hands and no extended fingers. The Greek Mountza and Brazilian A-Not-OK are even more different. It seems that, at least to a first approximation, if diversity of forms across languages and cultures demonstrates arbitrariness, then gestures, just like words, are arbitrary.

But let’s add a wrinkle to that reasoning. Is it possible that, while diverse, at least some of the Birds of the world are nonarbitrary, each in its own way? In other words, is there some meaningful reason why the Bird has the form it does and another reason why the Greek Mountza has the form it does, different though it might be?

One way to answer this question is to look at the history of each gesture. Perhaps the origin of a gesture reveals why it looks the way it does. This is easier said than done—gestures don’t leave the same paper trail that words do through written language, and as a result differing stories often develop about how a gesture came to be. So it can be challenging to discriminate the true history of a gesture—its etymology—from the invented “folk” etymologies that people propagate. For instance, some version of this folk etymology of the Bird might have appeared in your inbox:

In preparation for the Battle of Agincourt in 1415, the French, anticipating victory over the English, proposed to cut off the middle fingers of every captured English soldier. Without their middle fingers, it would be impossible for the English to draw their renowned longbow, rendering them incapable of fighting in the future. The English longbow was made of the native English yew tree, and the act of drawing the longbow was known as “plucking the yew” (or “pluck yew”).

But to the great bewilderment of the French, the English were victorious, and they began mocking the defeated French by waving their middle fingers at them, saying, “See, we can still pluck yew!”

Since “pluck yew” is rather difficult to say, the difficult consonant cluster at the beginning has gradually changed to a labiodental fricative f, and thus the word is often used in conjunction with the one-finger-salute.

It’s also because of the pheasant feathers on the arrows used with the longbow that the symbolic gesture is known as “giving the bird.”

This is a fantastic story—fantastic in that it’s total fantasy. Basically nothing about it is true, from the military origin of the gesture to the pluck yew contrivance to the timing of its invention to the reason we call it the Bird.11 To find the true history of the Bird, we’d ideally want to find records of it in visual representations, like paintings, or, failing that, in written descriptions. Perhaps for self-evident reasons, profane gestures are entirely absent from early paintings and drawings. And they tend to be only sparsely accounted for in writing. Fortunately, the Bird is about as notable a gesture as there is, and it has left a discernible trickle of a written record.

Here’s what we know from that record. The Bird has had a long and appropriately turbulent flight. It was not invented by English speakers—British or American. And it doesn’t date from anywhere close to as recently as the fifteenth century. That estimate is off by about 2,000 years. The earliest records place it in ancient Greece.12 For example, it shows up in the bawdy Greek playwright Aristophanes’s 419 BC play The Clouds, in which Strepsiades presents his middle finger to Socrates before waggling his penis at him.13 Those Greeks could party. In Laertius’s Lives of Eminent Philosophers (from 330 BC), the philosopher and critic Diogenes expresses disdain for Demosthenes, a prominent Greek statesman and orator, by flipping him the Bird and calling him a demagogue.14

So the Bird was around in ancient Greece. The Romans’ passionate cultural appropriation of all things Greek extended beyond religion, democracy, and attire into things that really matter, like vulgar gestures. So enamored were they of the Greek Bird that they gave it a name: digitus impudicus, the “indecent finger.” Then, like now, it was deployed to great effect. The emperor Caligula reportedly denigrated his subjects by making them kiss his middle finger rather than his hand.15 Cassius, one of these offended subjects, then assassinated him (though there was a lot of assassinating going on at the time, and Caligula doesn’t appear to have been the easiest emperor to deal with, so we can’t be sure it was the finger that sealed the deal). In another instance of imperial digital intervention, Augustus Caesar allegedly punished an actor who presented the Bird to a heckling audience member by banishing him from Rome.16

So we know that the Bird has been around for more than two millennia and that it wasn’t always called “the Bird,” at least not in its earliest incarnations. That name is a much more recent innovation, dating from the 1960s. As early as the end of the nineteenth century, people used the expression to give someone the big bird as a way to describe hissing at another individual, for instance, a performer or public speaker.17 From there, the term bird appears to have migrated from vocalizations to the manual gesture we now associate the word with. Not before 1967 did flipping the bird enter the written record. It first shows up in a music magazine article describing the Grateful Dead’s onstage antics.18

But how did it come to have the form it does—why the extended middle finger? Some say that, at least in ancient times, the Bird was considered a phallic symbol.19 Strepsiades makes the relation clear with his juxtaposition of presented middle finger and penis. And the belief continues to the present day. For instance, anthropologist Desmond Morris (whom you might know as the celebrated author of The Naked Ape) argues, “The middle finger is the penis and the curled fingers on either side are the testicles.”20 This might begin to explain why the Bird has the shape, or shapes, that it does. This explanation leans on the idea of iconicity—the notion that gestures may look like the things they represent. The Bird looks something like an erect penis.

Similar iconic accounts have been offered for all the profane gestures we’ve seen thus far. The Up-Yours in fact has the same proposed explanation: it’s believed to have originated as a phallic symbol too.21 The Fig has a more complicated history. In early Italian tradition, its name gave it away—it was described not only as making the Fig but also as the far le fiche, or “cunt gesture.” This is pretty damning evidence that people of the time thought of it as representing female genitalia, and the typical interpretation is that the thumb itself represents a clitoris. But by contrast, in current Russian use, the Fig is called shish, or “pine cone,” a word also used to refer to the glans, or tip of the penis, perhaps represented by the tip of the thumb. If these names are any indication, the Fig’s various incarnations over time and space have been iconic for different body parts.

But it’s not all phalluses and clitorises. The Greek Mountza—that’s the open palm oriented toward the denigrated person—apparently dates back to a Byzantine penal custom of wiping cinders on criminals’ faces to defame them as they were paraded through towns (although it may have precursors in a gesture used to cast curses).22 The gesture derives its name, Mountza (“cinders”), from the ash-wiping practice that the hand evokes. Similarly, cultural interpreters describe the circle formed by the thumb and index finger in the Brazilian A-Not-OK as representing the anus.23

These proposed origin stories are all quite similar in one way. They all explain profane gestures from around the world as more or less analog representations of specific things—usually body parts but also denigrating actions. This “iconicity” is akin to sound symbolism, but it lives in the visual rather than the auditory modality. The erect middle finger of the Bird originates in its similarity to the penis it’s meant to represent. The touching thumb and index finger of the Brazilian A-Not-OK form a circle to represent the shape of an anus.

But if we’re hoping to understand why gestures have the forms they do, we’re still missing a step. These origin stories, even assuming they’re correct, only go as far as to explain why people might use an extended finger to represent a penis, or a thumb emerging from a clenched fist to represent a clitoris. But these gestures don’t mean “clitoris” or “penis.” They don’t mean “wiping ashes” or “anus.” Like their linguistic analogs, they serve predominantly as forceful indications of disdain or denigration. This is the missing step. Why would a manual representation of a phallus (or anus or clitoris) indicate derision and deprecation? Why would it be aggressive to show a manual facsimile of an organ?

Anthropologists have argued, at least for the phallus case, that it’s just one of many examples where “the act of male erection or copulation becomes symbolic of male dominance and can be used as a dominance gesture in totally non-sexual situations.”24 If that’s true, it’s hard to recognize in the modern world. I suspect you’ll probably agree that revealing an actual erect penis would probably be out of place in most situations where someone wants to exert dominance. You wouldn’t see that happening at the weigh-in before a mixed martial arts fight or in a presidential debate. Moreover, if you were a supervillain, you wouldn’t engender fear in the hearts of interlopers by lining the entrance to your lair with erect penis statues. So even if this is why phallic gestures came to have the function they now have, it doesn’t seem to relate to the real-world experiences of people in today’s developed world. And the phallic representation explanation really falls limp when it comes to anus- and clitoris-based iconicity. So at best, it’s a story about why some of these gestures originally came to have the functions they have—and not for why they continue to have them.

We do know that the various Bird analogs we’ve reviewed find their ostensible origins in things that are themselves taboo: genitalia, sex acts, and so on. So the best explanation relies again on the Holy, Fucking, Shit, Nigger Principle. Perhaps the same selection pressures that make words about these big four topics most suitable to become profane also take handshapes and body movements about the same topics and groom the best candidates into profane gestures.

But even if these historical accounts are correct in their broad strokes—even if there’s a nugget of iconicity in the origins of profane gestures—this still doesn’t tell us whether profane gestures remain iconic in the minds of modern language users. The proposed resemblances between fingers and penises (and so on) aren’t particularly hard to see—the Bird looks plausibly like a penis. But we should check ourselves to make sure we’re not just reading in iconicity where we want to see it. Geometrically speaking, there are in fact a lot of things in the world that, like the Bird and like a penis, are longer in one dimension than in the other two. Likewise, many things are circular. And we wouldn’t want to fall into the trap of labeling everything so proportioned as phallic or anal, respectively. So how can we tell—in the mind of a contemporary speaker of English, Russian, or Brazilian Portuguese—when a finger is a phallus and when a finger is just a finger? How can we know that we, along with anthropologists, historians, and indeed the people of ancient Rome, aren’t just being drawn in by a simplistic explanation, one that we might be biased toward based on what we know about linguistic and other cultural taboos? How do we know we’re not seeing what we want to see?

In essence, I raised this same question in the last chapter about four-letter words. Simply observing a pattern in a language doesn’t mean that the pattern also has an internal manifestation in the minds of individual people who use that language. We know that raising a middle finger predisposes you to interpret events more aggressively. But does it also activate thoughts about penises?

There’s only one way to answer this question, and that’s to flip people off and see if that makes them think about penises. An experiment! The first thing to decide is which version of the Bird you want to show people. As I mentioned above, there are at least two major variants, one where the middle finger erupts alone from the fist and another where it’s flanked by half-raised index and ring fingers. An Internet image search for “middle finger” reveals that—if online images are representative of real-world proportions—the large majority of Birds are of the former, lone-finger type. There might plausibly be differences in the detailed interpretation of these two variants—perhaps, as Desmond Morris suggests, the curled index and ring fingers represent testicles in the minds of gesture users. And yet, if people today interpret these gestures as iconic, the middle finger ought to represent the shaft of a penis in either case, so going with the more frequent variant seems like a reasonable approach.

The second big decision is how to detect when a person is thinking about penises. Cognitive psychologists have devised a lot of tools to detect whether a word or concept has been activated in someone’s mind—everything from measuring how long it takes that person to read a word to whether or not he or she can solve an anagram puzzle with the word’s letters jumbled up. One tool that seems particularly well suited for our task is word completion. Suppose you give people a few letters followed by some blanks, like p e n _ _ . The job of your participants is just to fill in the blanks to make an English word. This particular set of letters has several possible correct answers in English. There’s penis of course, but also penny, penal, pence, and penne. The question is whether people are more likely to recognize p e n _ _ as the beginning of penis when they’ve just seen the Bird. If so, that would suggest that the Bird activates the concept of a penis or the word penis in their minds.

There’s a final decision we’d have to make in designing an experiment like this: determining the control condition. In an experiment, you want to know whether something you do to people (say, flipping them the Bird or giving them an experimental drug) has an effect. But that effect has to be measured by comparison to something else. In a pharmaceutical experiment, the control is usually a placebo—a pill, for instance, that’s identical to the one that delivers the drug, except that it’s missing the experimental compound. What should the control be in a middle finger experiment?

If the control were just nothing—that is, if people completed the anagram task after seeing the Bird in one condition and after seeing nothing in the control condition—then we wouldn’t know if increased penis spotting was due to the Bird in particular or to gestures in general. So a first attempt at a reasonable control condition might be to show people a gesture that doesn’t have any plausible association with penises. Like maybe the A-OK.

As it happens, I ran this experiment. I recruited two hundred people to perform a word-completion and gesture-memory task. They all saw the p e n _ _ prompt after seeing a still image of a gesture—either A-OK or the Bird. And I counted how many people in each condition responded with penis and how many generated another response, like penny or penal. You can see what I found on the next page. People who saw the Bird were statistically no more likely to answer penis than those who first saw A-OK.c

There’s no significant difference between the conditions, as determined by a Fisher’s exact test.

Now, you could reasonably object that I didn’t see any difference because the technique simply doesn’t work. Maybe I’m bad at science in any of a hundred ways that could have produced a null result. To alleviate this concern, I actually built something into the experiment known as a “manipulation check,” intended just to determine whether people’s word-blank-filling tendencies could be pushed around using gesture. Here’s how it worked. Everyone who answered the p e n _ _ prompt also saw another prompt, p e a _ _, which followed a different pair of gestures. The first was a Peace gesture. And the second was a Thumbs-Down. Overall, slightly less than half of people completed the word p e a _ _ as peace. Other popular words to type were pearl, peach, and pears. But critically, as you can see on the next page, people who first saw the Peace gesture were more than twice as likely to type in peace as people who saw the Thumbs-Down.d This successful manipulation check means that the technique works in general. Seeing a gesture can make you think about a word, as measured by how you complete a prompt. So if the Bird indeed makes people think about penises, it ought to have led to more penis responses to the prompt. That it didn’t suggests that perhaps it doesn’t.

A Fisher’s exact test reveals a very strong significant effect of gesture on word completion response, p < 0.00001.

The Bird doesn’t lead to significantly more penis responses

The Bird doesn’t lead to significantly more penis responses.

The Peace gesture leads to increased peace responses

The Peace gesture leads to increased peace responses.

Still, you could have other concerns about this result. Here’s an alternative account of why the Bird would have no significant effect, which is what we observed. Maybe everyone who participated had exactly the same idea of what p e n _ _ was trying to get at—penis. But suppose that in the population, a certain proportion of people simply don’t want to type penis during an experiment. If this hesitant group comprises 35 percent of the population, that would produce precisely the pattern we saw: two-thirds of people wrote penis, regardless of the gesture they previously saw, and one third refused to. How do we know that this isn’t what was going on? The answer, as it usually is, is another experiment.

We need a way to determine whether a gesture can get people to think about penises. So why not use a gesture that’s definitely about penises, like the Finger-Bang gesture, in which the index finger of one hand moves inside a loop created by the index and thumb of the other hand?

If this doesn’t pump up people’s penis responses to the p e n _ _ prompt, then there’s clearly something wrong with the method. Conversely, if Finger-Bang works where the Bird doesn’t, that suggests that the Bird simply doesn’t lead people to think strongly about penises. So I ran the same experiment as before, but with two changes. First, people saw one of three gestures before p e n _ _ . They could see A-OK or the Bird, as before, or they could see Finger-Bang. And second, I ran the study with more participants—bumping it up to 240—because with participants divided among three rather than two conditions, I wanted to make sure enough people saw each gesture. Two interesting things happened.

First, there was still no significant effect of the Bird. As you can see below if you look at the two leftmost bars, there were slightly more penis responses after the Bird, but the difference wasn’t statistically reliable. This replicates the finding from the first experiment. Second, and this is the new thing, Finger-Bang did significantly increase penis responses, by about 20 percent.e

A two-by-three chi-squared test revealed a significant relation (p < 0.01), and the pairwise difference between Finger-Bang and each other condition was significant by Fisher’s exact test (both ps < 0.05).

The Bird doesn’t lead to increased penis responses, but Finger-Bang does

The Bird doesn’t lead to increased penis responses, but Finger-Bang does.

The interpretation is pretty clear. This technique is sensitive enough to detect when gestures make people think about words or concepts. And although Finger-Bang makes people think about penises, the Bird does not. In its ancient history, the Bird may have originated as an iconic representation of a penis. But that association appears to have died off.

# $ % !

So does this mean that gestures like the Bird are arbitrary? Or are they iconic? In a sense they’re arbitrary. When you look at the simple mapping between form and meaning, nothing about a middle finger looks like the concept it conveys—roughly, in words, Fuck you. And an extended middle finger doesn’t convey this notion any better or worse than any of the other variants we see across the world. So, unlike cock-a-doodle-doo, there isn’t a resounding similarity among the Bird equivalents across the globe. And as we saw from the experiment results, seeing the Bird doesn’t appear to lead people to think about the word penis or about penises in general.

But at the same time, there’s a way in which these gestures are less than entirely arbitrary. Although they don’t look like what they mean, they often look like something else on which that meaning is based. Like a penis. Or other things. But usually a penis. Words denoting genitals and bodily functions often come to have profane functions as well (the Holy, Fucking, Shit, Nigger Principle at work). And similarly, gestures that historically derive from imagistic representations of genitals and their functions take on profane uses as well. In a way, that makes them less arbitrary. They look the way they do not by chance but by design. The fingers, the fist, and the palm were selected to represent things that they look like. And gestures that denote those things that they look like are recruited to perform profane functions. Their ultimate use is several degrees removed from where they originated. But it’s not random.

Now, most of the profane gestures we’ve looked at aren’t the most transparently iconic signs imaginable. They require a little interpretation, and the fact that they vary across cultures speaks to the importance of cultural knowledge. They’re subject to conventions. Even assuming that the Thumbs-Up and the Bird are equally iconic, they have different conventional meanings across cultures. So the story is a little more complicated than merely asking whether a gesture (or word) is iconic or arbitrary. Even if it’s iconic, we also have to know how transparent it is. Some gestures might be so transparently iconic that anyone in the world, even without specific knowledge of the language and culture that they derive from, could still figure out what they mean. Other gestures might require extensive familiarity with cultural conventions that users of that gesture are party to.

And when we dig a little deeper into profane gesturing, it’s clear that there exist other gestures that are far more transparently iconic than the Bird, the Fig, and their ilk. Consider, just for the sake of illustration, gestures representing sexual intercourse. We’ve already seen the Finger-Bang gesture, where one extended finger (often the index or middle finger) of one hand moves in and out of a circle formed by the other hand (usually the thumb and index finger but occasionally the whole fist). Another is a gesture I haven’t seen described in print, but let’s call it the Fist-Thrust. It uses a fist, usually palm down, pumping away from the body and then back toward it repeatedly. And then there’s the Pelvic-Thrust, where both elbows are bent and pump backward past the hips while the pelvis thrusts forward. And of course there are others. Each of these is more transparently iconic than the Bird. There’s more detailed shape information about more of the scene. That makes them easier to interpret independently of convention. Moreover, there’s more room for individual variation without compromising the message. With the Finger-Bang, the dynamics of the finger entering the circle formed by the other hand can, if the gesturer so desires, convey details about the dynamics of the represented sex act.

I’ll leave this line of argumentation here, because I think the point is probably made. Profane gestures like these, gestures at the most transparent end of the spectrum, look far more like what they’re meant to denote than the Bird does. And not surprisingly, we have limited experimental evidence, at least for Finger-Bang, that they activate words for the represented genitalia in the minds of language users. You can think of iconic gestures like these as the manual analogs of spoken onomatopoeia. Just as onomatopoeic words of spoken languages imitate sounds, so gestures can imitate actions, as these do.

And this easy activation in the mind of the observer may be a communicative edge that explains why we have vulgar gestures in the first place and why they tend to be iconic. Profane words, as we’ve seen, generally don’t resemble what they mean. Profane gestures, by contrast, often do. This makes them more direct, more evocative triggers for the concepts they convey than words often are.

To sum up what this tour of profane gestures has revealed, we now know that the profane gestures of the world vary and that they find their origins in areas like sex and bodily functions that are also, not coincidentally, the sources of taboo words. Profane gestures are largely more iconic (to different degrees) and more transparently so (in different ways) than typical words of a spoken language, and this can give them a leg up in directly activating what they refer to.

But we’ve only witnessed the beginning of the hands’ power to offend. Consider that there exist entire languages that are articulated, like gesture, via visible movements of the hands, arms, torso, head, and face. These signed languages are the more sophisticated, more articulate siblings of the gestures we’re familiar with. Gestures are isolated communicative bits, which limits what they can communicate. You can use a gesture (for instance, many of those discussed in this chapter) to start a fight, but gestures alone won’t allow you to talk yourself out of a fight by explaining how your anger-management issues stem from repressed feelings of low self-worth. You can use a gesture at a physics convention to summon someone over, but you can’t use gesture alone to make advances on that person by showing off your quantum mechanics chops. Gestures are expressively impoverished compared with the words of fully formed languages.

So we should probably expect signed languages—which harbor all the expressive potential representative of full human languages in the visual modality—to set the standard for manual obscenity. But in addition, signed languages hold the key to why gestures are so much more iconic than words are. Gestures differ from words in several ways. The first is the modality: words create a predominantly auditory signal, but gestures are mostly visual. Maybe vision and movements of the body are better suited for iconicity than sound is. But there’s another possible factor at play. Words are different from gestures because they’re an integrated part of a communication system that allows them to be combined to express any thought. Signed languages can uniquely tell us whether the increased iconicity of profane (and other) gestures has to do with their visual nature or whether words are just more arbitrary as a consequence of being the building blocks of a systematic language.

# $ % !

Millions of people around the world communicate primarily using a signed language, of which there are hundreds. Most signers are deaf or hearing impaired, but some hearing people—usually relatives, friends, or associates of deaf people—also sign. Signed languages share one big thing with gestures: both deploy visible movements of the hands, arms, torso, and face. But in most other ways—their structure, their complexity, their expressiveness—there’s no comparison. Signed languages are fully functioning languages. Like the spoken languages you’re likely more familiar with, they place strict constraints on how to articulate words,25 and they have inviolable, meaningful, and abstract rules of grammar.26 Let me give you some examples.

Compare the two signs from American Sign Language (ASL) on the next page, BITCH and BASTARD. I might need to explain why the names of signs are set in all caps. Signed languages aren’t just signed versions of local spoken languages. So it would be inaccurate and often misleading to label signs with their translations into some spoken language (like English). But still, we need some label for the signs so that we can talk and write about them. The compromise is to label them in all caps typically using words of the local spoken language, when there’s a close translation equivalent. The ASL sign that we label PUSSY below means something similar to English pussy. But you’ll see examples where the sign labels aren’t recognizable in English. With that out of the way, let’s look at BITCH and BASTARD. As you can see, both use the same handshape—a flat palm—and both involve striking the face, but they do so in different places.f

And a presentational note: Signs in a signed language involve hands configured into particular shapes moving through space and changing shape over time. This means that the best way to show a sign is in person or, barring that, using video. But this is a book, and writing is illsuited to describing how signs are articulated. I’m just as disappointed as you are that I can’t embed video in this book. It’s 2016. Come on. So instead, I’ve done the next best thing. The signs you see in this chapter encode motion using sequences of still images that you should read like a comic strip.

Everything about how you form these signs with your hand and arm is strictly regimented to correctly articulate them. If you bend your fingers just a little, or if you touch your palm to a different part of your face, or if you touch it to your face and hold it there rather than tapping briefly, you will be “mispronouncing” the sign. You may inadvertently sign another word—for instance, the only difference between BITCH and BASTARD is where you hit the face—or you may produce gobbledegook, in the same way that a small change to the pronunciation of a word in a spoken language will change meaningful bitch to meaningless gitch.g

In the time since I generated this example, I’ve been informed that in some varieties of mostly Canadian English—perhaps centered in Saskatchewan—gitch is in fact a word, meaning “undergarment.” This strikes me as a suitable meaning for a closed, monosyllabic word like gitch.

BITCH in ASL. Source: Jolanta Lapiak

BITCH in ASL. Source: Jolanta Lapiak.

BASTARD in ASL. Source: Jolanta Lapiak

BASTARD in ASL. Source: Jolanta Lapiak.

Signed languages also have very specific conventional rules of grammar that dictate how the signs fit together to form larger utterances. American Sign Language has its own grammar, totally distinct from that of English. Let’s compare an English sentence with its equivalent in American Sign Language. Say you want to tell someone she’s an unlikeable person. In English, the sentence might follow the typical subject-verb-object order of transitive sentences: You are a bitch. But in American Sign Language, as you can see below, the sentence would more probably go like this: YOU BITCH YOU. There’s no verb. But the subject occurs twice, at the beginning and the end. This most definitely isn’t English, but it’s still grammar—standard grammar for ASL.

The point here is just that ASL, like any signed language, is a fully formed language with its own rules, distinct from the spoken languages around it. And this gives it an expressive power that far surpasses speech-accompanying gestures like the Bird. And signers swear. There’s been surprisingly little research on the profanity of American Sign Language—or any other signed language for that matter. But here’s what little we do know about swearing in sign, largely taken from the primary resource on the topic, a paper by Gene Mirus of Gallaudet University and colleagues.27

YOU BITCH YOU in ASL. Source: Jolanta Lapiak

YOU BITCH YOU in ASL. Source: Jolanta Lapiak.

Physical characteristics are fair game. Many English speakers are shocked when they first learn how casually Mexican Spanish speakers describe people by their physical characteristics. If you have a high body-mass index, you might well be nicknamed gordo (“fatty”). If you have exceptionally large ears, people might call you antenas (“antennas”). The same is true in American Sign Language. As Mirus and colleagues put it, “An ASL signer might pick someone out by their large nose, acned skin, or asymmetrically placed eyes… . This is perfectly acceptable behavior; it is not rude or even politically incorrect, regardless of the situation.”28 So taboo language in ASL doesn’t typically derive from these sources, unlike in English.

Audiological status can be inflammatory. Many of our most profane expressions are terms that describe groups of people. One group that ASL signers find socially important enough to have slurs for is hearing people. For example, there’s a sign in ASL for HEARING in which the index finger makes circles in front of the lips, perhaps to indicate that hearing people communicate by moving their lips. There’s also an insult built off this sign, in which you take the index finger and move it up to the forehead to signify THINK-LIKE-A-HEARING-PERSON. According to Mirus and colleagues, this sign is derogatory and degrading.29

How you sign it makes a sign taboo. Many profane signs can also be used in nonprofane ways. For example, the sign PUSSY (which we’ll discuss more in a moment) looks almost identical to the sign VAGINA—same hand shape, same location. They’re distinguished only in that the former is produced with “a quick, sharp movement and sometimes an angry (or perhaps joking, depending on the situation) facial expression.”30

Finally, signs are pretty iconic, but it’s complicated. Gestures tend to be more iconic than the words of spoken languages and more transparently so: they’re more likely to look the way they look because of what they mean. So are signs. Even if all you know about American Sign Language is BITCH, BASTARD, and YOU, you might already have a pretty good sense of how arbitrary its signs are. Some, like YOU, which you’ve just seen, are not at all arbitrary. Many other ASL signs are similarly not only iconic but transparently so.31 This is especially true of profane signs. On the next page you’ll see the signs FUCK and PUSSY in ASL. I’ve left them unlabeled to let you experience for yourself precisely how iconic they are or aren’t.

A sign in ASL. Source: Jolanta Lapiak

A sign in ASL. Source: Jolanta Lapiak.

Another sign in ASL. Source: Jolanta Lapiak

Another sign in ASL. Source: Jolanta Lapiak.

I presume you had no trouble ascertaining which is PUSSY and which is FUCK. The iconicity of PUSSY would be hard to miss. Remember, for this sign to be PUSSY and not VAGINA, it needs to be accompanied by the right movement and facial expression. In contrast to PUSSY, you might have trouble seeing why FUCK looks the way it does. It may help to know that in this sign, as elsewhere in ASL, the outstretched index and middle finger represent legs.

While PUSSY is quite transparently iconic, other signs, like BITCH and BASTARD, are less obvious. What BITCH denotes—an aggressive or unpleasant person—doesn’t superficially have anything to do with touching the palm of the hand to the chin. Same with BASTARD and the forehead. And yet, the forms of these signs aren’t entirely arbitrary. If you happen to know a lot of American Sign Language, you might have noticed that BITCH and BASTARD actually make sense in terms of how the rest of the language uses space systematically. Signs in ASL for females, like GIRL, MOTHER, AUNT, and so on, tend to involve touching the chin. And signs for males, like BOY, FATHER, UNCLE, and the like, tend to involve touching the forehead.

BOY in ASL. Source: Jolanta Lapiak

BOY in ASL. Source: Jolanta Lapiak.

GIRL in ASL. Source: Jolanta Lapiak

GIRL in ASL. Source: Jolanta Lapiak.

Why? The historical explanation is iconic. The sign BOY originates in touching the brim of a cap, at the forehead. And GIRL comes from the placement of a bonnet string under the chin. Generalization from this pattern may have introduced a local systematicity into the signs of ASL. Just as gl-words in English tend to have meanings related to light or vision, and just as profane English words are more likely to be closed monosyllables, ASL has its own systematicities, based on its own conventions and its own history of iconicity. BITCH and BASTARD are consistent with the rest of the system in where they’re placed: forehead for male, chin for female. Of course, that doesn’t make them any less arbitrary for someone who doesn’t already know the language—the sign BITCH is no more or less inherently appropriate for its meaning than is the English word bitch. But iconicity and convention underlie even arbitrary-seeming signs.32

# $ % !

I started by selecting some signs from ASL because it’s the largest signed language indigenous to the United States and Canada, as well as the best documented. The number of people who currently use ASL is unknown; reasonable estimates range from about 100,000 to about 500,000 signers.33 But ASL is just one of the hundreds of signed languages around the world: French Sign Language, Mexican Sign Language, British Sign Language (BSL), and Japanese Sign Language are just a few of the larger and better-studied ones.34 And most of these languages are unrelated. British Sign Language, for instance, developed along a totally separate track from American Sign Language (which itself derived from a nineteenth-century form of French Sign Language).35

But because of their rampant iconicity, even totally unrelated signed languages show easily noted similarities. The sign PUSSY in British Sign Language—which, to reiterate, is totally unrelated to ASL—is identical to the sign PUSSY in American Sign Language. They’re both iconic and in the very same way. Slightly less similar are the ASL and BSL signs for FUCK. Compare the ASL sign we saw earlier with its BSL analog.

The two FUCKs exhibit clear differences. They use different handshapes: ASL uses closed fists with index and middle fingers extended, whereas the hands in BSL use open palms with a gap between the thumbs and the other fingers. The motion is also different. It’s hard to depict this in still images, but whereas FUCK in ASL uses a together-apart-together motion, the BSL version taps the hands together only once.

PUSSY in BSL. Source: Commanding Hands

PUSSY in BSL. Source: Commanding Hands.

Are these two signs for FUCK still iconic, even if different in handshape and motion? Arguably, yes. Iconicity in signs can be just as nuanced as in gestures. FUCK in both BSL and ASL could be iconic by encoding something about the meaning of the sign in how each is articulated. The meaning of FUCK offers a bounty of details that the form of the sign could highlight and lots of ways to depict those details. The index and middle fingers can stand for legs, as in ASL. Or the gap between the thumb and index finger can represent a crotch, as it appears to do in BSL. Languages have latitude.

So just like in gesture, there appears to be rampant iconicity in signed languages. But as we’ve seen, this doesn’t mean that the world’s signed languages are identical. Languages choose how to encode meanings iconically. And even if those choices are all equally valid, once they’re made, they’re binding—people who learn the language come to take the shape and motion of those signs as given. And it couldn’t be otherwise; without settled, agreed-upon conventions, communication would be reduced to a game of charades. And to be sure, signers are doing something far more complex. Just like speakers of any spoken language, fluent signers can communicate efficiently about anything from the tax code to nanotubes. They can exhort, they can impel, they can request, and they can swear. And they do so—just as quickly as speakers of spoken languages36—because the signs of a signed language are just as fixed as the words of a spoken language. Signers use rules of grammar, some of them specific to profanity, just like speakers of spoken languages.37

FUCK in BSL. Source: Commanding Hands

FUCK in BSL. Source: Commanding Hands.

This brief introduction to profanity in the signing world should have revealed two things. First, there are striking similarities across totally unrelated signed languages due to iconicity. The contrast with spoken languages is stark. If you take two unrelated spoken languages—or distantly related languages—the words for similar concepts are likely to be quite different. As we already saw, English cunt doesn’t sound anything like Cantonese hai or Russian pizdá. Profane signs are far less arbitrary. And second, while the hundreds of signed languages across the globe are similar in their rampant iconicity, they differ markedly in exactly how individual signs look. This means that while a particular sign in one signed language might tempt the nonsigner to believe that signing is essentially pantomime, it’s anything but. Signed languages are conventional systems.

This means that knowing one signed language won’t allow you to understand the next one. At its core, BSL is quite different from ASL—so much so that they’re usually described as “mutually unintelligible”38—just like English and Chinese. When you compare signed languages, everything from the alphabets to the signs and the grammar can be different. For instance, Japanese Sign Language has a sign that’s produced by doing what looks like pointing two Birds at the person across from you and pumping them up and down in alternating thrusts. This sign—in Japanese Sign Language—isn’t the least bit profane. It means “brothers.” In fact, the raised middle finger in Japanese Sign Language doesn’t have any sort of taboo connotation. Its meaning might have a hint of iconicity, but the erect finger doesn’t represent a phallus so much as a person. In Japanese Sign Language, many signs for people involve extended fingers—MAN is the thumb, WOMAN is the pinkie, and so on. Critically, the extended middle finger is BROTHER. And, again through iconicity, multiple fingers represent multiple people. If you put these principles together, two extended middle fingers represent brothers in a way that’s both iconic and conventionalized.h

Thanks to Nozomi Tomita and So-One Hwang for bringing this example to my attention!

At the same time, like gesture systems, signed languages balance arbitrariness with iconicity. To say that two signed languages are totally different—because they have different histories, different signs, and so on—is only true to a point. In fact, in some ways signed languages are more similar than spoken languages can be to one another. Some native signers of ASL have reported to me that if you are a sufficiently clever and observant signer of ASL, you might do better with BSL than someone totally naive to signed languages. Some signs are similar due to iconicity. Some look superficially different but are motivated in a similar way by iconicity. Perhaps knowing how a signed language harnesses and uses iconicity helps you figure out what’s going on in a different language you don’t know at all, as long as it operates according to similar underlying principles. And iconicity may also help adult nonsigners learn signed languages.39

# $ % !

The vocal tract is only one of the channels that humans use to communicate. Most of what you can do with your mouth you can also do with your hands, and vice versa. But the different channels are not equivalent in fundamental and consequential ways. Using your hands and arms and the rest of your body to perform visible actions, whether gesturing or signing, affords different possibilities and imposes different constraints.

Iconicity is one way the channels differ. It’s hard to talk iconically about motion and shape using spoken words, but gesture and sign are particularly well equipped to do this because you can use your body to mark out movement through space and trace or recreate shapes. Hands can be contorted into various shapes; they can move in three dimensions with specific speed, dynamics, direction, and so on. Visible movements of the hands afford analog representations of far more of the world than words do. This appears to be the reason that both gestures and signs are generally less arbitrary than the words of spoken languages.

The verbal and manual channels differ in other ways that would lead someone using a spoken language to prefer one or the other in specific contexts. Obviously, there are conditions that make words inaudible and gestures unseeable. On the highway, for instance, the Bird might be the only way to get your message across. Conversely, sometimes undetectability increases the value of a word or gesture. A Bird can be crafted discretely, for example, at the back of a classroom behind a laptop in such a way that the intended audience of other students can see it but the hapless teacher at the front of the room cannot. Gestures and spoken words are processed via overlapping but somewhat distinct pathways in the brain,40 and it’s possible that these pathways give profane gestures more direct access to emotional reactions. And finally, because, as I mentioned earlier, gestures are largely not “on the record”—we take them less seriously as communicative acts than words—they allow plausible deniability. A discrete middle finger scratch of the nose, the type that President Barack Obama has perfected, is ambiguous enough to leave the audience wondering, did he just mean to do that?