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Where did the term 'flipping the bird' come from?

Madonna performs during the halftime show with Nicki Minaj (L) and M.I.A. in the NFL Super Bowl XLVI football game in Indianapolis, Indiana, February 5, 2012.

MIKE SEGAR/Mike Segar/Reuters

You didn't have to watch the Super Bowl to learn about rapper MIA's middle-fingered salute during Madonna's performance Sunday – the internet was quick to light up with criticism from moralizers and push-back from those who took it in stride.

But absent in the debate was any solid information on the basis for the coy term – "flipping the bird" – favoured by many newspapers as the PG description for an obscene gesture dating back millennia.

According to some sources, in the 19th century one could "give a bird" as a symbol of derision or displeasure. This could be a hissing sound, much like a goose, used by theatre-goers in Australia. In England, it could be closer to what is known now as a Bronx cheer or raspberry.

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Although the etymological progression is unclear, it would appear that some time in the 20th century proffering the middle finger came to be seen as a silent way to give a bird. Perhaps because of the gesture involved, the term became "flipping the bird."

Of course, a more obscure meaning for the term is to upend a pigeon, exposing its genitalia.

Just as well MIA didn't do that before 110-million television viewers. One can only imagine the response from the Parents Television Council.

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About the Author

Oliver Moore joined the Globe and Mail's web newsroom in 2000 as an editor and then moved into reporting. A native Torontonian, he served four years as Atlantic Bureau Chief and has worked also in Afghanistan, Grenada, France, Spain and the United States. More

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