“Up Yours!” “Victory,” Or “Peace, Man” Where did the “Two Finger Salute” REALLY Come From?

Of all the various hand gestures we humans commonly use, few are as complicated and versatile as the “V-sign,” AKA “the forks” or the “two-finger salute”. With just a twist of the wrist, this simple sign can go from a symbol of victory, peace, or Kawaii cuteness to an extremely rude gesture roughly translating to “Up yours!” Or “F**k you!” But where did this gesture come from, and how did it come to have such wildly different meanings. And before you start furiously typing “Simon, we already know this one!” into the comments, please keep watching, for as with much of history, the answer is much more complicated – and mysterious – than what is commonly said on this one.

The most often-repeated origin story for the rude palm-in version of the V-sign traces its invention to the Battle of Agincourt on October 25, 1415. On that day, an English army of 6,000 men under King Henry V faced a French Army nearly three times as large, including 10,000 armoured men-at-arms on horseback. Thankfully, the English had a secret weapon: the longbow. The machine gun of its day, the longbow allowed Henry’s 7,000 well-trained archers to lay down a withering salvo of up to 55,000 arrows per minute and penetrate even the thickest armour up to 230 yards away. This devastating firepower laid waste to the French forces, which had been lured into making a suicidal charge against the English forces. In the wake of this and other English victories the French took revenge and declared that any English archer captured alive would have their middle and index fingers cut off, leaving them unable to ever draw a bow again. Upon learning of this policy of digital mutilation, English archers took to taunting the French by waving those two same fingers in defiance. As the legend goes, the gesture indicated that the archers could still “pluck yew” – yew being the traditional wood used to manufacture longbows. Over time, the “p” sound in “pluck” evolved into an “f” sound, creating the expletive we know and love today.

Unfortunately, while this etymology has been repeated in countless web articles and books by respected medieval scholars, it is almost certainly false. For one thing, the infamous F word has nothing to do with archery and is thought to derive from the old German word fokken meaning “to beat against” – the implication here being a rather obvious one. But there are several more glaring problems with the theory, such as the fact that longbows take more than just two fingers to draw. The longbow is a formidable weapon whose draw weight can reach up to 70 kilograms, requiring medieval archers to train near-daily from childhood in order to use it effectively. Consequently, it typically requires at least three fingers to draw properly- not two like in the legend. There is also the minor issue that the supposed French practice of cutting off archers’ drawing fingers appears in only one contemporary account, by the French chronicler Jean de Wavrin:

“…and further he told them and explained how the French were boasting that they would cut off three fingers of the right hand of all the archers that should be taken prisoners to the end that neither man nor horse should ever again be killed with their arrows. Such exhortations and many others, which cannot all be written, [King Henry V] addressed to his men”.

The context of this account suggests that King Henry simply told his men that the French would cut off their fingers in order to motivate them before battle, making the whole story nothing more than a 600-year-old piece of anti-French propaganda.

So if English archers didn’t originate the V-sign, where did it come from? Alas, nobody knows for certain; as with so many colloquial gestures and expressions, the precise origins of the V-sign have been lost to history. The earliest written description of the gesture – albeit in a slightly different form – appears in the 1532 novel Gargantua and Pantagruel by French author François Rabelais:

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…”

However, the first recorded instance of the modern gesture does not appear until 1901. In that year, pioneering British filmmakers Sagar Mitchell and James Kenyon were filming workers outside the Parkgate Ironworks in Rotherham, England when one man, apparently none too thrilled at being filmed, flashed the v-sign at the camera. A 1913 photograph of a crowd of spectators at a football match also shows a man making the gesture. Given that the sign was apparently well-known by the early 20th century but appears in no written chronicles prior to this, it is likely that the gesture appeared sometime in the early to mid Victorian era. As for how the sign originated, ethnographers have speculated that, like the more well-known middle finger, the sign was originally meant to evoke a phallus – or, in this case, two phalluses for even greater impact. Alternatively, it could be an eye-poking gesture or represent the horns of the devil or a particular part of the female anatomy. But as anthropologist Desmond Morris concludes in his 1979 book Gestures: Their Origin and Distribution:

“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…”

What is known is that as a rude gesture, the v-sign is an almost uniquely British phenomenon, with a 1970s study by Morris and his colleagues revealing the gesture to be almost unknown outside of the British Isles, a handful of Commonwealth nations, and the Mediterranean island of Malta. The gesture is also almost certainly working-class in origin, such that when the high-born Winston Churchill began using the V-sign in the 1940s, he had to be informed of its negative connotations. But it would not remain an exclusively rude gesture for long, for during the Second World War the V-sign would acquire the first of its many alternate identities.

During the war, Allied propagandists sought out any means of boosting public morale both at home and in enemy-occupied territories. On January 14, 1941, Victor de Laveleye, former Belgian Minister of Justice, suggested in a BBC radio broadcasts that his fellow Belgians use the letter V as a rallying emblem, for it stood for “victory” in English and French and “vrijheid” [“free-heed”] or “freedom” in Dutch and Flemish. As de Laveleye explained:

“…the occupier, by seeing this sign, always the same, infinitely repeated, [would] understand that he is surrounded, encircled by an immense crowd of citizens eagerly awaiting his first moment of weakness, watching for his first failure.”

Within weeks, Vs began appearing chalked on walls all across occupied Europe, while Allied propagandists began incorporating the symbol into all manner of posters and other media. And at the suggestion of assistant news editor Douglas Ritchie, the BBC began its wartime broadcasts with the opening bars of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, whose distinctive dah-dah-dah-DAH spelled out the “V” in Morse Code.

In July 1941, with the use of the letter V as a morale booster already well-established, Prime Minister Winston Churchill introduced another variation: the V-sign hand gesture. Churchill initially used the palm-in version of the gesture, but after being informed of its vulgar connotations, he switched to the more benign palm-out version. However, the gesture’s original meaning may actually have helped boost its popularity, as working-class Britons interpreted it not only as “V for Victory” but also an “up yours!” to Nazi Germany and the other Axis powers. Whatever the case, the “V for Victory” sign soon became Churchill’s trademark and was adopted by several other Allied leaders, including Supreme Allied Commander General Dwight D. Eisenhower, who continued to use the sign well into his presidential term in the 1950s. By the end of the war, “V for Victory” had become so ubiquitous across the Allied countries that the gesture’s original vulgar meaning remained all but unknown outside the British Isles.

In the post-war years, the V-sign underwent a further evolution. In response to U.S. President Richard Nixon’s use of the sign to symbolize victory in the Vietnam War, anti-war protesters began using the gesture ironically as a symbol of peace – most often with the palm facing outwards. This use of the V-sign became an icon of the American hippie and counter-culture movements, and quickly eclipsed the old “V for Victory” meaning – so much so that in much of the Western world the gesture is now known almost exclusively as the “Peace Sign”. However, even in this watered-down form the V-sign could still pack a symbolic punch, often being used as a gesture of contempt for authority. For example, in his 1972 mugshot, actor Steve McQueen, arrested in Anchorage, Alaska for driving under the influence, defiantly flashes the peace sign.

Meanwhile, in the UK, the original palm-in V-sign had lost none of its power to shock. On August 15, 1971, famously hotheaded show jumper Harvey Smith arrived at Hickstead, England to compete in the illustrious Hickstead Derby. The working-class son of a Yorkshire builder, Smith had long been at odds with the aristocratic show-jumping establishment – and this year was no exception. Smith had won the previous year’s competition, but had failed to return the trophy. Though Smith claimed he had simply forgotten it, the judges disagreed, accusing Smith of arrogantly assuming he would win again. In the heated argument that followed, Douglas Bunn, owner of the Hickstead track, told Smith that he stood no chance of winning. To Bunn’s dismay, this only further motivated Smith, who proceeded to ride his horse, Mattie Brown, to victory. Following his win, Smith defiantly flashed the two-finger salute towards the judges’ stand. This proved too much for the judges’ delicate sensibilities, for when Smith returned home he received the following telegram from Bunn:

Because of your disgusting behaviour at the end of your jump-off in the Derby the directors and I have disqualified you and all prize-money (£2000) is forfeited. You will also be reported to the stewards of the B.S.J.A. (British Show Jumping Association).”

Infuriated, Smith appealed the judgment, appearing before the stewards with a thick file of photographs showing Winston Churchill using the “V for Victory” sign – with both palm facing outwards and inwards. Reluctantly, the BSJA reinstated Smith’s victory. Meanwhile, Smith’s defiant gesture against the aristocratic establishment had made him a folk hero among working-class Britons, and led to the two-finger salute becoming widely known as the “Harvey Smith.” In more recent years, figures such as Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott have made headlines for flashing the V-sign to reporters, indicating that in the UK the gesture has lost none of its potency.

By contrast, in much of the rest of the world the V-sign has been stripped of almost all its symbolic meaning – vulgar or otherwise – becoming an innocent and frivolous gesture often flashed in tourist photographs. This use of the gesture is thought to have originated in Japan, where the pisu sain or “peace sign” was imported from American hippie culture sometime in the 1960s. However, the sign’s popularity did not truly take off until 1972, when the Winter Olympics were held in Sapporo, Japan. Strongly favoured to win the figure skating competition was 18-year old American skater Janet Lynn. However, during one of her performances, Lynn slipped and fell, eliminating her chances of winning the gold medal. Nonetheless, when Lynn stood up from her fall, she smiled. Lynn’s defiant positivity in the face of defeat won the hearts of the Japanese, who are not known for taking failure well. As Lynn later explained in a telephone interview:

They could not understand how I could smile knowing that I could not win anything. I couldn’t go anywhere the next day without mobs of people. It was like I was a rock star, people giving me things, trying to shake my hands.”

As a well-known peace activist, Lynn would often flash the “peace sign” in publicity photographs, and her legions of Japanese fans were quick to adopt the gesture as their own. The gesture’s popularity was given a further boost when Jun Inoue, lead singer of the popular Japanese band The Spiders, flashed a spontaneous pisu sain while filming a commercial for Konica Cameras. These developments coincided with the widespread availability of cheap cameras and women’s magazines and the rise of Kawaii or “cuteness” culture, leading to the pisu sain becoming a staple of selfies and tourist photos across southeast Asia and around the world.

From vulgar gesture to a symbol of victory and peace to a harmless way to spice up a selfie, the V-sign has come a long way in the last 100 years, a versatile gesture that readily adapts itself to its user’s needs – whatever they may be. Like the fact that the word “dope” can somehow mean “idiot,” “drugs”, “airplane paint”, or “awesome”, the versatility of the humble V-sign is a testament to the often baffling complexity of human communication.

Expand for References

Allwood, Greg, Did Agincourt Archers Really Invent Swearing With a Two-Fingered Salute V-sign? Forces Net, January 31, 2020, https://www.forces.net/heritage/history/did-agincourt-archers-really-invent-swearing-two-fingered-salute-v-sign

The Story Behind the V Sign, Yabai, August 1, 2017, http://yabai.com/p/2727

Two Fingers Up to English History, The BS Historian, July 2, 2007, https://bshistorian.wordpress.com/2007/07/02/two-fingers-up-to-english-history/

The V-sign, Icons: a Portrait of England, https://web.archive.org/web/20081018230141/http://www.icons.org.uk/theicons/collection/the-v-sign/biography/v-for-get-stuffed

Burnett, Stephanie, Have You Ever Wondered Why East Asians Spontaneously Make V-signs in Photos, TIME, August 4, 2014, https://time.com/2980357/asia-photos-peace-sign-v-janet-lynn-konica-jun-inoue/

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