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The V-sign

The Rude Version

In Britain, the V-sign - when done with the palm backwards - is a rude insult, meaning "Get Stuffed!". Although it is now losing ground to the American single finger, it is still seen from time to time. Recent two-finger saluters include deputy PM John Prescott, Liam Gallagher of Oasis and England striker, Wayne Rooney.

Liam Gallagher
Liam Gallagher gestures at photographers
© TopFoto.co.uk
The strangest thing about this rude gesture is that nobody knows where it comes from, or even what the two fingers are supposed to represent. The earliest description of an insulting V-sign comes from the French writer, François Rabelais. In his comic epic, Gargantua And Pantagruel (1532), he described a duel of gestures between two characters, Panurge and Thaumast:

Then (Panurge) stretched out the forefinger and middle finger or medical of his right hand, holding them asunder as much as he could, and thrusting them towards Thaumast...
Thaumast began then to wax somewhat pale, and to tremble...

The British sign is probably unrelated to Panurge's gesture, which may well have been invented by Rabelais, along with the other strange gestures used in the duel. The rude V-sign is unknown in France, where people are more likely to insult each other with a forearm jerk or an American finger.

Photographic evidence

The first solid evidence of the rude V-sign dates from 1901, when the Edwardian film-makers Mitchell and Kenyon were filming workers outside Parkgate ironworks in Rotherham. A surly young man, unhappy to be filmed, can be seen making the gesture aggressively to the camera. A photograph of a 1913 football crowd also shows a man making the sign. Since it was then well-understood, it probably goes back to the Victorian period. It is likely to be working-class in origin, since the upper-class Winston Churchill, who began by making his Victory V-sign palm forwards, had to be told that it was rude.

In the playground

In 1959, Iona and Peter Opie published The Lore And Language Of Schoolchildren, based on interviews with children and observations of them at play. They found that the V-sign had become the most common insulting gesture used in the playground, and that it had supplanted the much older thumbing of the nose (cock-a-snook). The children did not know what the sign meant, apart from the fact that their parents told them that it was rude, and that they shouldn't do it.

Studying gestures

Between 1975 and 1977, Desmond Morris led a team of anthropologists studying the history and distribution of gestures across western Europe and the Mediterranean. After interviewing 1,200 informants in 25 countries, they found that the rude V-sign was almost unknown outside the British Isles. The exception was Malta, where 30% of people asked understood the sign - due to the influence there of British culture.

Morris came up with ten possible explanations of the V-sign, mostly sexual (e.g. a double phallus). One suggestion was that it was a modification of the horns of the cuckold, while another was that it was an eye-poking gesture. He explained why he believed that there were so many explanations:

The reason... is because of the strong taboo associated with the gesture (its public use has often been heavily penalized). As a result, there is a tendency to shy away from discussing it in detail. It is "known to be dirty" and is passed on from generation to generation by people who simply accept it as a recognized obscenity without bothering to analyse it... Several of the rival claims are equally appealing. The truth is that we will probably never know...  

Gestures: Their Origins and Distribution, 1979

Two-Fingers Prescott

John Prescott
John Prescott flicks the V-sign as he enters No 10
© TopFoto.co.uk/PA
Deputy PM John Prescott has always had a troubled relationship with the press. In 2001, he made a speech in which he claimed that the Government had delivered economic security and social justice, illustrating the point by holding up two raised fingers, palm backwards. The next day's newspapers were filled with pictures which seemed to show him making the "Get Stuffed!" sign.

In June 2003, Prescott showed the journalists what he thought of them by giving them a furtive V-sign, behind his back, as he entered 10 Downing Street for a cabinet meeting. Once again, the photograph found its way onto every front page.

Despite this bad publicity, Prescott was photographed making the gesture on two further occasions - in January 2005, during a conference on sustainable communities in Manchester; and the following June, during Prime Minister's question time, when he gave the two-fingered salute to conservatives heckling Tony Blair. Prescott is now as famous for the V-sign as the showjumper Harvey Smith was in the 1970s, and journalists have nicknamed him "Two-Fingers" Prescott. Find out why the V-sign got the name "The Harvey Smith'" here.

Rooney's V-sign

In October 2006, the England football team lost 2-0 to Croatia - a crucial 2008 qualifier. During the match some of the team's fans, who had travelled all the way to Zagreb, were so disappointed with the performance that they chanted, "You're not fit to wear the shirt!" and "What a load of rubbish!"

Later, England striker Wayne Rooney reacted to further abuse as players boarded the team coach - by flashing the V-sign at fans. Matt Dickinson of The Times commented, "The alleged V-sign did not of course stand for victory."

Read the Guardian's report on Rooney's V-sign here