Phrase of the day: two-fingered salute

At some point during most courses we run, we end up taking whichever students are up for it to the pub. It’s a grand British tradition and the pub is basically where we go to let our hair down, relax and talk. Having spent lots of time over the years in pubs with foreign students, we’ve sadly become all too well aware of the many social faux-pas it’s possible to commit if you’re not au fait with the conventions and norms of pub etiquette. We’ve had to endure the students who, on entering the pub, rush not to the bar, but straight to a table that they proceed to occupy . . . much to the anger of the guy at the bar who’s following the unwritten rule and buying his drink first before trying to find as place to sit and who’d been eyeing the spare table! Then there are the students who buy a half of lemonade which they then sit and share for hours at a table that could otherwise be occupied by serious drinkers! We’ve had to set the enthusiastic, but rather serious young Italian straight when he asked hopefully if a visit to the pub meant we could discuss philosophy and politics. I can still remember the look of deep disappointment on his face when we explained that actually mostly what we do in the pub is just talk rubbish and take the piss out of each other. And we’ve had to quickly discourage students from taking out packed lunches and eating them in the middle of crowded pubs that survive by selling hot lunches!

That said, nothing fills me with quite so much dread as the knowledge that a student is going to go to the bar to try and order two beers, because more often than not, the student unwittingly ends up giving the barman the two-fingered salute! The V-sign, which is made with your first and middle finger, as shown in the photo below, is  one of the most common insulting gestures here in the UK. It’s equivalent to the more American tradition of giving someone the finger, which involves just sticking the middle finger up, and basically means the same thing: Fuck you! Or, to put it rather more politely, up yours!

Its use in British culture is widespread and goes back a long way. In many circumstances, giving someone the two-fingered salute is viewed almost as a comic act. Indeed, friends may well give each other the V-sign in pubs whilst arguing or making fun of each other! The two-fingered salute has also featured in plenty of significant cultural contexts. For, instance, there was the 1990 headline in The Sun, a right-wing British tabloid, that featured an image of the V-sign alongside the headline Up Yours, Delors! The newspaper basically urged its readers to stick two fingers up at then President of the European Commission Jacques Delors, after he’d advocated a central EU government.

In 2009, Scottish footballers Barry Ferguson and Allan McGregor were banned from the Scottish national squad for showing the V sign while sitting on the bench during the game against Iceland. The action was considered to be so rude that the Scottish Football Association decided to never include these players in the national line-up again! You start to see why the prospect of students ordering two beers using this hand gesture doesn’t exactly excite me, I’m guessing! Not, I hasten to add, that any bar staff have ever taken offence. Either they’ve been foreign themselves and thus maybe not aware of the cultural significance of the gesture or else they’ve simply made allowances for the fact that the students clearly weren’t British – and so couldn’t be held accountable for their actions in these instances!

One common legend here is that the two-fingered salute (or V-sign) derives from a gesture made by archers fighting against the French at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415. The story goes that any archers captured by the French had their index and middle fingers cut off so that they could no longer use their bows and arrows, and so the V Sign started being used by uncaptured and victorious archers as a display of defiance against the enemy.Sadly, there’s no historical evidence to back this story up, but it’s a great one nonetheless!

Just in case you’re now wondering what you CAN do with your hands when ordering two drinks here, why not just do nothing? Or if you really have to use your hands, then go for the V for Victory salute made famous by Winston Churchill, and later popularised as the peace sign which was flashed by hippies the whole world over.

Want to learn more about British language and culture? Take our ADVANCED LANGUAGE AND CULTURE course this summer.

  • What kind of insulting hand gestures are common in your country? Do you know their history?
  • Have you ever committed any terrible social faux-pas? When? What happened?
  • What norms and conventions would it be useful for a visitor to your country to know about?
  • Has anyone ever taken offence at something someone you’ve accidentally said or done? When? What?
  • Can you think of any other sports players who’ve been banned? Do you know why?
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