The quintessential British offensive gesture for most of the 20th century, formed by holding up a hand with the middle and index finger upright in a V shape, the thumb and other two fingers curled into the palm; the palm facing towards the gesturer. If asked, most people would gloss the meaning as ‘F—you’ or something similar, and it was certainly a very potent offensive gesture until recent years when it seems to be losing its ability to offend. Nevertheless, most British people would still be careful, if they needed to signify the number two in a gesture to someone else, to make the sign with palm facing the recipient. The history of the gesture is uncertain, and there is no evidence of its existence before the first decade of the 20th century. In recent years an explanation for the origin of the V-sign dating it from the Battle of Agincourt has appeared. This story maintains that British archers were so effective and so feared by their enemy that when the French captured an archer they chopped off the two fingers he needed to draw a bow-string. Bowmen who had not been thus disfigured took to holding up two fingers to taunt their cowardly foes. Needless to say, there is no shred of evidence to support this unlikely origin, but it is on its way to becoming entrenched in the popular mind and becoming folklore in itself. It is possible that the V-sign developed from the much older horns symbol, used to imply someone is a cuckold since at least the 16th century, although this gesture was traditionally made with little finger and index finger, and did not have the aggressive force of the V-sign. The American gesture, formed by holding up the middle finger alone, which was roughly equivalent to the V-sign, has been introduced to British culture by American films and other media, since about the 1960s, and is now well understood by most British people. It will be interesting to note whether it replaces the V-sign in the offensive gesture vocabulary.
The V-sign formed with the palm away from the gesturer has had a number of meanings. It was used effectively during the Second World War to signify ‘Victory’, especially by Winston Churchill, and in this sense it can still be seen in news reports from conflicts all round the world. In the 1960s, however, it was annexed by American, and later British, youth as the ‘Peace sign’, and a further change was signalled when in 1997 the pop group The Spice Girls used it to signify ‘Girl power’.
See also: FINGERS, GESTURES, COCKING A SNOOK, HORNS, THUMBS.
Morris, 1979: 226–40;Talking Folklore 1:2 (1986/7), 25–42.