Friday, March 19, 2010

FALSE History of the middle finger

FALSE History of the middle finger

Before the Battle of Agincourt in 1415, the French, anticipating victory
over the English, proposed to cut off the middle finger of all captured
English soldiers. Without the middle finger it would be impossible to draw
the renowned English longbow and therefore they would be incapable of
fighting in the future. This famous 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').

Much to the bewilderment of the French, the English won a major upset and
began mocking the French by waving their middle fingers at the defeated
French, 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 labiodentals fricative F', and thus the words often
used in conjunction with the one-finger-salute! It is also because of the
pheasant feathers on the arrows used with the longbow that the symbolic
gesture is known as 'giving the bird.'

Pluck Yew

Claim: The 'middle finger salute' is derived from the
defiant gestures of English archers whose fingers had
been severed by the French at the Battle of Agincourt.

Status: False.

Example: [Collected on the Internet, 1999]

The 'Car Talk' show (on NPR) with Click and Clack, the
Tappet Brothers have a feature called the 'Puzzler', and
their most recent 'Puzzler' was about the Battle of
Agincourt. The French, who were overwhelmingly favored
to win the battle, threatened to cut a certain body part
off of all captured English soldiers so that they could
never fight again. The English won in a major upset and
waved the body part in question at the French in
defiance. The puzzler was: What was this body part? This
is the answer submitted by a listener:

Dear Click and Clack, Thank you for the Agincourt
'Puzzler', which clears up some profound questions of
etymology, folklore and emotional symbolism. The body
part which the French proposed to cut off of the English
after defeating them was, of course, the middle finger,
without which it is impossible to draw the renowned
English longbow.

This famous weapon was made of the native English yew
tree, and so the act of drawing the longbow was known as
"plucking yew".

Thus, when the victorious English waved their middle
fingers at the defeated French, they said, "See, we can
still pluck yew! PLUCK YEW!"

Over the years some 'folk etymologies' have grown up
around this symbolic gesture. Since 'pluck yew' is
rather difficult to say (like "pleasant mother pheasant
plucker", which is who you had to go to for the feathers
used on the arrows), the difficult consonant cluster at
the beginning has gradually changed to a labiodental
fricative 'f', and thus the words often used in
conjunction with the one-finger-salute are mistakenly
thought to have something to do with an intimate
encounter. It is also because of the pheasant feathers
on the arrows that the symbolic gesture is known as
"giving the bird".

And yew all thought yew knew everything!

Origins: The piece quoted above is silly, and so
obviously a joke that shouldn't need any debunking.
Nonetheless, so many have forwarded it to us accompanied
by an "Is this true?" query that we feel duty-bound to
provide a bit of historical and linguistic information
to demonstrate why this story couldn't possibly be true.

First of all, despite the lack of motion pictures and
television way back in the 15th century, the details of
medieval battles such as the one at Agincourt in 1415
did not go unrecorded. Battles were observed and
[Image]chronicled by heralds who were present at the
scene and recorded what they saw, judged who won, and
fixed names for the battles. These heralds were not part
of the participating armies, but were, as military
expert John Keegan describes, members of an
"international corporation of experts who regulated
civilized warfare." Several heralds -- both French and
English -- were present at the battle of Agincourt, and
not one of them (or any later chroniclers of Agincourt)
mentioned anything about the French having cut off the
fingers of captured English bowman.

Secondly, for a variety of reasons, it made no military
sense whatsoever for the French to capture English
archers, then mutilate them by cutting off their
fingers. Medieval warriors did not take prisoners
because they were observing a moral code that dictated
that opponents who laid down their arms and ceased
fighting must be treated humanely; they took prisoners
because high-ranking captives were valuable property
that could be ransomed for money. The ransoming of
prisoners was the only way for medieval soldiers to make
a quick fortune, and so they seized every available
opportunity to capture opponents who could be exchanged
for a handsome price.

Bowman were not valuable prisoners, though; they stood
outside the chivalric system and were considered the
social inferiors of men-at-arms. There was no monetary
reward to be obtained by capturing them, nor was there
any glory to be won by defeating them in battle. As
Keegan wrote, "To meet a similarly equipped opponent was
the occasion for which the armoured soldier trained
perhaps every day of his life from the onset of manhood.
To meet and beat him was a triumph, the highest form
which self-expression could take in the medieval
nobleman's way of life." Archers were not the "similarly
equipped" opponents that armored soldiers triumphed in
defeating; if the two clashed in combat, the armored
soldier would either kill an archer outright or leave
him to bleed to death rather than go to the wasteful
effort of taking him prisoner.

Moreover, if archers could be ransomed, then cutting off
their middle fingers would be a senseless move. Your
opponent is not going to pay you (or pay you much) for
the return of mutilated soldiers, so now what do you do
with them? Take on the burden and expense of caring for
them? Kill them outright and violate the medieval moral
code of civilized warfare? (Henry V was heavily
criticized for supposedly having ordered the execution
of French prisoners at Agincourt.)

Even if killing prisoners of war did not violate the
moral code of the times, what would be the purpose of
cutting off fingers and then executing these same
people? Why not simply kill them outright in the first
place? Do you return these prisoners to your opponents
in exchange for nothing, thereby providing them with
trained soldiers who can fight against you another day?
(Even if archers whose middle fingers had been amputated
could no longer effectively use their bows, they were
still capable of wielding mallets, battleaxes, swords,
lances, daggers, maces, and other weapons, as archers
typically did -- and as they indeed did at Agincourt --
when the opponents closed ranks with them and the
fighting became hand-to-hand.)

So much for history. There's not much that makes
linguistic sense here, either. The claim that the
"difficult consonant cluster at the beginning" of the
phase 'pluck yew' has "gradually changed to a
labiodental fricative 'f'" is specious. A labiodental
fricative was no less "difficult" for Middle English
speakers to pronounce than the aspirated bilabial
stop/voiceless lateral combination of 'pl' that the
fricative supposedly changed into, nor are there any
other examples of such a shift occurring in English. As
well, the etymology of the word 'fuck' indicates that
the word originated in a completely different time,
place, and manner than the absurd version presented
here. And on top of all that, the insulting gesture of
extending one's middle finger (digitus impudicus in
Latin) dates from Roman times (at least 2,000 years
ago), so it obviously was not developed in conjunction
with the creation of the English word 'fuck.'"

Last but certainly not least, wouldn't these insolent
archers have been bragging about plucking the bow's
string, and not the wood of the bow itself?

Barbara "bowfinger" Mikkelson

Last updated: 9 July 2007

Urban Legends Reference Pages © 1995-2010 by Barbara and
David P. Mikkelson. This material may not be reproduced
without permission. snopes and the logo are
registered service marks of Sources Sources:

Axtell, Roger E. Gestures: The Do's and Taboos of
Body Language Around the World. New York: John Wiley &
Sons, 1991 ISBN 0-471-53672-5 (pp. 33-35).

Keegan, John. The Face of Battle. New York:
Penguin Books, 1978 ISBN 0-140-04897-9 (pp. 78-116).

Opie, Iona and Moira Tatem. A Dictionary of
Superstitions. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992
ISBN 0-19-282916-5 (p. 454.

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posted by u2r2h at Friday, March 19, 2010


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