Created | Updated May 12, 2006
The making of hand gestures has long delighted schoolchildren who might use them to swear without being heard, angry people wanting to further emphasise their words, and by Prime Ministers and their cabinet members. One of the more commonly seen gestures in the UK is the 'V-sign', made by straightening the index and middle fingers of the hand so that they stick up in a V-shape while the other fingers and thumb are curled against the palm. The sign can be made with the palm turned outwards, away from the signaller, or with the back of the hand facing out.
For people in the UK there is a significant difference of meaning depending on which way around the hand is held; with the palm facing out the gesture can mean 'victory' or 'peace' but with the palm facing in the meaning is an insult, meaning something like 'get stuffed', but more strongly worded. The insulting meaning is not generally recognised outside of the UK which can result in unfortunate misunderstandings for visitors to Britain, for example the Canadian who thinks he has just ordered two beers in a pub may find it takes a long time to actually get served.
Making the V-sign with the palm facing inwards, often accompanied with an up-and-down motion from the wrist or elbow, is interpreted as a general insult by the British. The origin of this use is very hazy, steeped in myth, and sadly lost in the mists of time. The most often quoted origin, almost certainly apocryphal, dates back to the Battle of Agincourt between the armies of the English and French kings. The English bowmen were an important part of their king's army and the French king decided that any captured English soldier was to have his first two fingers cut off, to prevent him from being able to use a longbow. As an act of defiance against the French generally, the English came to stick their two (attached) bow-fingers at them - a way of saying 'we can still fire our longbows at you' (or more generally 'go stuff yourself!'). Unfortunately no contemporary accounts of the battle mention this at all, and no enemy would be able to see which, or even how many, fingers a bowman was shaking at him. The main advantage of the longbow was that the bowman stood far enough away from a bow-less adversary so that he was able to kill the enemy whilst he couldn't be reached himself. It is possible that the gesture was not used during combat, but as a general gesture of defiance against France after the battle which may have taken years before coming into general use. However, this is undermined because there was no system of taking prisoners of war in those days, not even one allowing mutilation of the opposition. The most likely outcome of capture for a longbowman, who was unlikely to have had any rich relatives from whom to extract a ransom, was death. Cutting off two fingers seems a little pointless if the prisoner is about to be killed anyway, and who would tell the tale?
A further folk etymology sprang from this story arising from the fact that longbows were made from wood from the yew tree, and the waving of two fingers indicated that the bowman could still draw the bow, or 'pluck yew'. It was proposed that the pl- consonant group was then gradually changed to an f-. However, it is thought that this is almost certainly a modern manipulation and a very unlikely origin of the modern swear word.
It is worth noting that use of the V-sign these days may be seen as cheeky and playful rather than a deadly insult, and is generally perceived as being less aggressive than the similar middle-finger-only gesture known in the United States as 'flipping the bird'. To underline its naughty, rather than aggressive, nature it is also sometimes accompanied by a blown raspberry. Having said that, care should be taken when choosing to give someone the V-sign; for a time in the 1970s the V-sign was known as the 'Harvey Smith' after the showjumper was stripped of his title and winnings for making the gesture, captured by the television cameras, towards the judges. In the 1980s the gesture was much employed by Vyvyan and Rick, anarchic characters in television's The Young Ones. Famously, on 1 November 1990, The Sun1 published a 'two-fingered salute' on its front page under the headline 'Up Yours Delors!2'. Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott hit the headlines in 2003 for covertly3 making the gesture towards the press outside Downing Street.
V for Victory
The V-sign, meaning 'victory,' is most closely associated with Winston Churchill, who was British Prime Minister during the Second World War. It has been suggested that Aleister Crowley 'invented' this sign for Churchill, however it actually began with Belgian politician and resistance leader Victor de Laveleye in January 1941. He was using the V to mean victoire - victory in French, and vrijheid - freedom in Flemish. The BBC became aware of the gesture and began a campaign to encourage its use in June 1941. This was taken up and popularised by Winston Churchill who was frequently photographed making a V-sign, and it became a common gesture of the Allies. It has been noted that initially he made the gesture both with his palm facing out and facing in4, before settling on using the palm-out version most of the time. It has been suggested that he may not have realised what message he was giving with the palm-in version and stopped using it when it was pointed out to him. Other suggestions are that he knew precisely what it meant and was aiming it at the Nazis.
The use of the V-sign to mean 'peace' appears to spring from both of the previously described usages, as an extension of the victory sign and also as a reversal of the 'get stuffed' version. It was popular with hippies in the 1960s and 1970s and can often be seen in photographs of anti-Vietnam war protests, and CND (Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament) marches. It is a very popular sign in Japan, which may be partially due to the Allied occupation post World War II. It is also attributed to Japanese ice-skater and peace campaigner Janet Lynn, who fell during her performance in the 1972 Winter Olympics but remained smiling throughout. She charmed the public back home and became something of a celebrity, frequently pictured making the peace gesture. In fact it is widely used in East Asia where it may be roughly translated to mean something like 'happy' and is often employed by young people posing for photographs in the same way as the thumbs-up gesture is used in the west5.