Davis' Infamous Finger Salute
Has Had a Big Hand in History

San José Mercury News
June 20, 1996

By Michael Oricchio
Mercury News Staff Writer

When Richard Allen Davis, the convicted murderer of 12-year-old Polly Klaas, defiantly flashed his two middle fingers at a courtroom camera Tuesday, he invoked an obscene gesture with powerful, primordial roots.

According to folklorists, authors and experts in the history of words and symbols, the impact behind this act -- indicative of the basest sort of violation -- stems from those ancient origins.

''It goes back a hell of a long way. About 2,000 years or so. To ancient Rome,'' said Jesse Sheidlower, a linguist and editor at Random House who put together ''The F Word,''a book-length guide to the English language's most foul utterance. ''There was the digitus impudicus, which more or less means "the impudent finger' or "the dirty finger.' ''

Reinhold Aman, the 60-year-old publisher of Maledicta: The International Journal of Verbal Aggression, explained that the Romans used the gesture as a symbol of anal intercourse meant to degrade, intimidate and threaten the object of their ire.

The threat implicit in the gesture can even be traced to the animal kingdom, Aman said. Male baboons, he added, become erect as both a warning of impending danger and a threat to predators.

''So humans who use 'the finger,' '' Aman explained from his Santa Rosa headquarters, ''are basically aping a monkey.''

He also ascribed similar significance to such age-old practices as medieval knights facing off against each other with lances held vertically aloft.

According to other folklore -- which Sheidlower now debunks -- the British variant of ''giving the finger,'' in which the index and middle finger are derisively thrust upward, stemmed from the Battle of Agincourt in 1415, detailed in Shakespeare's ''Henry V.'' The story went that British archers supposedly chided their French enemies with it.

Closer to home, Sheidlower found early flashes of the gesture that every schoolchild now knows as ''flipping the bird'' cropping up in the United States during the late 19th Century.

''There's evidence of it from the 1890s, referring to contempt or betrayal,'' he said. ''So my belief is that the use of the phrase "the finger' goes back 1890.''

Indeed, what some refer to as ''the Mickey Mouse salute'' has figured prominently in modern popular culture. Abbie Hoffman flashed it during the infamous 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention. Then-Gov. Ronald Reagan thrust it at Berkeley protesters while he reigned over California during the state's heady, counter-culture years.

In 1976, then-Vice President Nelson Rockefeller flipped off hecklers at a campaign stop in Binghamton, N.Y. That incident gave the maneuver a new moniker, according to San Francisco folklorist Archie Green: ''People who wrote about it began to call it "the Rockfeller gesture.' ''

But Davis' use of it may be fraught with more meaning than he realized, said Alan Dundes, a professor of anthropology and folklore at the University of California, Berkeley.

''Given the fact that he's accused of a sexual crime, to repudiate the verdict in sexual/symbolic terms makes it all the more poignant or loaded. I don't think he's aware of it. I think he lost his cool,'' Dundes said.

''It's certainly an interesting point -- particularly when the nub of the jury's decision in the whole trial was not whether he committed murder. The only question was, "Did he molest Polly?' The image is saying: "Damn right, buddy! And the same to you twice over!' ''

[Copyright © 1996 by San José Mercury News]


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