'Pluck Yew' - The Origin of 'The Finger'

Archers plucking you
Print Collector/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

How one of the most frequently-used curses in the English language — not to mention a certain profane gesture entailing the extension of one's middle finger — supposedly originated as a medieval battlefield taunt.

Description: Joke / Folk etymology
Circulating since: 1996
Status: False (details below)

As posted in Usenet discussions, December 1996:

Subject: FW: Puzzler
The 'Car Talk' show (on NPR) with Click and Clack, the Tappet Brothers, have a feature called the 'Puzzler'. 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".

Analysis: Pay no attention to the pseudo-academic bluster above concerning pheasant pluckers, labiodental fricatives, and the English longbow. The text is a clever and amusing spoof, not meant to be taken seriously.

Lexicographer Jesse Sheidlower, author of "The F-Word" (Random House: 1999), says the "totally ludicrous" tale erroneously conflates the etymology of the word f*ck with an older bit of folklore, itself questionable, purporting to trace the origin of the European "two-finger salute" (roughly analogous to "flipping the bird" in America) back to the taunts of British archers against the French during the Hundred Years' War.

Etymologists say found its way into the English language from Dutch or Low German during the 14th century and made its first written appearance around 1500. The word pluck, on the other hand, is of Latin derivation and there is no known linguistic connection between the two English words. It's doubtful the expression "Pluck yew" was ever uttered before 1996 when this apocryphal story first went into circulation online.

The middle-finger gesture, which has apparently had phallic connotations in every culture in which it has been used, is much older. We know it dates back to ancient Greece, at least, where it was referenced in "The Clouds," a play written by Aristophanes in 423 B.C. It was also well known to the Romans, who referred to it variously as digitus infamis ("infamous finger") and digitus impudicus ("indecent finger"). In all likelihood its origins were prehistoric.

Sources and further reading:

From David Wilton's WordOrigins.org

The Etymology of Some Obscenities
From the "Take Our Word for It" Webzine

What's the Origin of the 'F' Word?
Cecil Adams, "The Straight Dope" (1984)

What's the Origin of 'the Finger'?
Cecil Adams, "The Straight Dope" (1998)

"The F-Word"
Edited by Jesse Sheidlower (New York: Random House, 1999)

"Wicked Words"
by Hugh Rawson (New York: Crown Publishing, 1989)