[Artemisia] The Bird - Myth

Auraelia de Medici auraeliade at yahoo.com
Tue Oct 5 09:35:53 CDT 2004

This Urban Legend has been around for some time.  It
is a myth, albiet a fun one. 

Here are the actual facts from

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
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 
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

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

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:   29 September 1999 

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