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163139.  Thu Apr 05, 2007 4:11 am Reply with quote

Q: What's the origin of the V-sign?

F: Archers at Agincourt etc
A: Do we have an answer, other than saying that it isn't the archer thing?

The outer thread discussion on this starts at post 147114.

More helpfully, here's the view of my new best friend Jonathan Ferguson, Assistant Curator, Military History, National Museums Scotland:

There really is no evidence at all for this idea, and no reference to it before the 1970s, as this brief article points out - . It's propagated today in large part by the re-enactment/living history community for obvious romantic reasons, and for jingoistic reasons by the public at large, but I have also seen a form of it in an American email forward involving the supposed (made up!) insult "pluck yew" (see It's a clear attempt to ascribe great antiquity to a culturally distinctive offensive gesture (that may not even be that old itself). As the Icons article says, it's not even very plausible; in fact there are good reasons why it is quite unlikely. Hostage taking was an important aspect of medieval war, but not in the way that servicepeople are captured today. They were taken because they were militarily, politically, and/or economically useful; a crippled archer (or even a healthy one!) is none of those, and whilst his commanders might prefer that he not be killed, they would not exactly move heaven and earth (or pay out) to get him returned in such a useless state. Bottom line; a captured archer is a dead archer. Also bear in mind that today, longbows are drawn with three fingers, not two, and the medieval longbows had very heavy draw weights.

For as definitive an answer as is possible to get (you cannot after all prove a negative), I would try to get in touch with Professor Anne Curry at the University of Southampton; she has, I understand, reviewed the French source (Froissart) that the reference is alleged to have come from, and as yet has found no evidence whatever that this salute existed. It certainly wasn’t recorded as being used at Agincourt itself. Her details are here; - I’m not sure whether her latest book covers this myth specifically or not. I need to find a copy myself.

I particularly like that the myth is thought to be no more than 30 years old. The article linked to above contains this:

In the 1970s, anthropologist and author Desmond Morris made a detailed study of the history of the rude V-sign, and came up with ten possible explanations for its origin. His 1979 book, Gestures, Their Origin And Distribution, has a whole chapter on the sign, yet he does not even mention archers. This suggests that the story was invented after 1979.

Looks like that book would give us our answer.

Mat, I'm sure you posted your mythcon on this but I can't seem to find it now.

163143.  Thu Apr 05, 2007 4:25 am Reply with quote

I know Molly has posted on this, but I can't find her stuff either, so here's the V-for-victory story for completeness' sake. Incidentally, I think this topic is strong enough that it would be a slight waste to use it as Gen Ig, so it may belong in in England or somewhere.

On January 4, 1941, Victor De Lavelaye, a Belgian refugee in Britain, made a BBC radio broadcast to his countrymen, in which he suggested a new way of striking at their Nazi occupiers:

I am proposing to you as a rallying emblem the letter V, because V is the first letter of the words 'Victoire' in French, and 'Vrijheid' in Flemish: two things which go together, as Walloons and Flemings are at the moment marching hand in hand, two things which are the consequence one of the other, the Victory which will give us back our freedom, the Victory of our good friends the English. Their word for Victory also begins with V.

Could De Lavelaye have got this idea from his own first name?

Beethoven's Fifth

De Lavelaye's campaign was taken up by the BBC, which began to broadcast the morse code for V (dot-dot-dot-dash), followed by the opening bars of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, whose notes correspond to the morse signal; "fifth" can also be written using the Roman numeral, V. These four notes would have an added significance for educated Germans, for Beethoven supposedly said that they represented the sound of "fate knocking on the door".

People in Nazi-occupied territories were told to chalk Vs on walls, and to make the V signal whenever possible. Teachers could call children to order by clapping the signal, and train drivers could make it using their whistles. Every time someone knocked on a door or rang a church bell, they should use the rhythm of Victory.

The campaign was planned to undermine German morale in the occupied territories. De Lavelaye explained, "The occupier, by seeing this sign, always the same, infinitely repeated, will understand that he is surrounded, encircled by an immense crowd of citizens eagerly awaiting his first moment of weakness, watching for his first failure."

Such was the success of the campaign that the Germans tried to counter it with their own "V for Viktoria" project. They were too late, for the letter V was now understood across Europe as an anti-Nazi sign.

The Churchillian gesture

Winston Churchill took up the Victory campaign enthusiastically, and made a V sign with his fingers whenever a camera was pointed at him, his palm facing in both directions. This dismayed his private secretary, John Colville. In September 1941, Colville wrote in his diary, ''The PM will give the V-sign with two fingers in spite of representations repeatedly made to him that this gesture has quite another significance.''

Churchill was eventually persuaded to use only the palm forwards gesture.

163145.  Thu Apr 05, 2007 4:31 am Reply with quote

Here's some stuff on the actual origin of the rude gesture:

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. ...

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

163146.  Thu Apr 05, 2007 4:35 am Reply with quote

For completeness here is Molly's post.

post 162550

and MatC's

post 162614

163147.  Thu Apr 05, 2007 4:35 am Reply with quote


In 2004, a Cumbrian pensioner was fined £100 for flicking the V-sign at a speed camera.

although the same site also says:

In 2006, a motorist was fined £80 in Colchester for insulting a speed camera with his middle finger. This was deemed to be an offence under the terms of the Public Order Act 1984, even though he was driving within the legal speed limit when he made the gesture.

Last edited by Flash on Thu Apr 05, 2007 4:37 am; edited 1 time in total

163148.  Thu Apr 05, 2007 4:36 am Reply with quote

What!? I do that all the time - and pull stupid faces at them. Surely that's not a crime.

163150.  Thu Apr 05, 2007 4:39 am Reply with quote

Thanks for the links, egg. Mat got under the radar of my search function by cunningly not using the word "archer" in an article about archers.

163152.  Thu Apr 05, 2007 4:43 am Reply with quote

American gestures are perhaps the most easily understood in the UK, to the extent that the single middle finger is now well on its way to replacing the traditional English V-sign. This gesture, known in America as “flipping somebody the bird” or simply “giving them the finger” has an all-too-obvious phallic connotation, suggesting that the individual at whom it is aimed is being threatened with some unwanted and implicitly painful penetration.

Legend has it that the first documented usage of the middle finger was when Charles “Old Hoss” Radbourn of baseball team the Boston Beaneaters did it in a team photograph of 1886.


Its origins go back as far as classical antiquity, as there is a reference to a similar gesture in Greek dramatist Aristophanes’ comedy The Clouds, while the Romans referred to the middle finger as the digitus impudicus, or impudent finger, as a result of its being widely used then in the way it is still known today. We can therefore see that the two-fingered English gesture is a later refinement (if that’s the right word) of a simpler, starkly obvious wordless insult.

In Arabic societies, there is an inverted version of the one-finger salute, in which the finger points downward, often accompanied by a vigorous downward movement of the hand. Directed at a man you are intending to insult, this is an imputation of impotence and, as such, deeply shaming.

163158.  Thu Apr 05, 2007 5:06 am Reply with quote

Mat, I'm sure you posted your mythcon on this but I can't seem to find it now.

It’s behind you!

Oh no, wait a minute, here it is ...


THE MYTH: The British have been doing a Harvey Smith, flicking the V, and sticking two fingers up since 1415. At the Battle of Agincourt (or perhaps Crecy), the French threatened to cut off the English longbowmen’s first and second fingers, thus permanently disarming them. When the English won a surprise victory, they waved their fingers defiantly at the enemy.

THE "TRUTH": No-one seems able to prove or disprove this popular story, but there’re a lot of reasons to doubt its veracity. According to anthropologists, hostile gestures involving jerking movements of parts of the hand or forearm are found in many if not most cultures. There’s no record of captured bowmen being mutilated at Agincourt, or elsewhere; if the practice was widespread enough to launch the v-sign, such records would surely exist, from a time when all aspects of warfare were closely scrutinised and chronicled. Tellingly, in the US this legend is applied to the middle finger alone, American mythchiefmakers clearly being unaware that “giving the bird” is not native to the UK.

SOURCES: _The Times_, 4 January 2003; ";" ";" ""

DISCLAIMER: If there’s evidence of the V-sign existing prior to 1415, I haven’t seen it; and if there’s evidence that the finger-chopping tale is more than a digital version of folk etymology, I haven't seen that either. I trust correspondents to FT’s letters page will do better. If not, you can all eff off.

These sort of (broadly speaking etymological) legends are almost always “about thirty years old.” I’ve no idea why, but I daresay the answer to that question would be fascinating in itself. Did something - analogous to the Coming of the Internet - happen in the 1970s, which led to a sudden bloom of all these folk etymologies, back-formed acronyms, and so on?

1249061.  Wed Sep 13, 2017 12:43 pm Reply with quote

don't know if this helps but.
in the novel, 'the white company', by Arthur Conan Doyle.
he mentions the english archer V sign, stemming from the battles with the scots and prior to the battles with the french. (i.e. the chopping off of the fingers).
now i know this does not prove the myth, but the book was published in 1891, which is longer than 30yrs ago.

1249065.  Wed Sep 13, 2017 1:39 pm Reply with quote

As an archer, I would point out that, while a longbow is drawn with three fingers, cutting off two of them would still render the archer useless.


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