Don't believe everything you read on the internet. For example, the "f-bomb" wasn't born at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415.

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Pluck yew.

If you believe what you read on the internet and are a sucker for an amusing story, you might think that the most widely used curse in modern America—and its physical manifestation (i.e., “flipping the bird”)—evolved from this supposedly ancient, undecipherable epithet above and its accompanying obscene gesture.

Indeed, “pluck yew” does sound very much like “fuck you.” So, it’s plausible, right?

But this is where critical thinking becomes, um, critical.

The “pluck yew” online narrative, which has apparently been floating around the internet for years and still is (I just recently saw it for the first time on Facebook), claims that what we now also call the “f-word” or “f-bomb” derive from the 1415 Battle of Agincourt, France, in which the vastly outnumbered British, led by King Henry V, unexpectedly annihilated the French.

In a fact-checking Reuters article three years ago referring to an online post explaining the meme, the news agency wrote:

“The post alleges that the French had planned to cut off the middle fingers of all captured English soldiers, to inhibit them from drawing their longbows in future battles. It goes on to state that after an unexpected victory, the English soldiers mocked the defeated French troops by waving their middle fingers.

The image makes the further claim that the English soldiers chanted “pluck yew” ostensibly in reference to the drawing of the longbow [made of yew tree wood]. The “pl” sound, the story goes, gradually changed into an “f”, giving the gesture its present meaning.”

But. Reuters added, the narrative is “historically inaccurate.”

The agency reported that Anthony Corbeill, Professor of Classics at University of Kansas and author of Nature Embodied: Gesture in Ancient Rome, had written:

The most familiar example of the coexistence of a human and transhuman element is the extended middle finger. Originally representing the erect phallus, the gesture conveys simultaneously a sexual threat to the person to whom it is directed and an apotropaic [i.e., evil-averting] means of warding off unwanted elements of the more-than-human.

Corbeill notes in his book that the gesture harks back to Priapus, a minor Roman deity dating to 400 BC, who Merriam-Webster Dictionary describes as “a Greek and Roman God of gardens and male generative power.” Depictions of Priapus with an erect phallus were commonly used as a warning to evil-doers.

The Roman cultural habit of “extending the third finger from a closed fist, made the same threat, by forming a similarly phallic shape,” Cortbeill wrote.

Britain’s BBC broadcasting service also deconstructed the false middle-finger narrative but went back further in history, explaining that it derives from a public rebuke by the ancient Greek philosopher Diogenes:

A public intellectual, expressing his contempt for a gas-bag politician, reaches for a familiar gesture. He extends his middle finger and declares: “This is the great demagogue.”

The episode occurred not on a chat show nor in the salons of New York or London, but in 4th Century BC Athens, when the philosopher Diogenes told a group of visitors exactly what he thought about the orator Demosthenes, according to a later Greek historian.

The middle finger, extended with the other fingers held beneath the thumb, is thus documented to have expressed insult and belittlement for more than two millennia.

Renowned anthropologist Desmond Morris told the BBC:

It’s one of the most ancient insult gestures known. The middle finger is the penis and the curled fingers on either side are the testicles. By doing it, you are offering someone a phallic gesture. It is saying, “this is a phallus” that you’re offering to people, which is a very primeval display.

The modern British two-fingered “salute” (with palm facing the gesturer) is a “double phallus,” Morris notes.

The “history” behind the verbal accompaniment to these obscene hand gestures—the alleged “pluck yew” epithet—is as inventive as it is wrong. Nonetheless, the f-bomb is, in fact, the United States’ most widely slung curse, as these maps from Business Insider show.

In explaining the actual history of “fuck you,” the website Mashable notes:

The origin of “fuck” is one of the hardest to trace, as it was banned from early written work and dictionaries.

Etymologies from various sources all tend to agree that the word probably developed from various Germanic languages. The verb form of the word in German is ficken. In Dutch, fokken means “to breed or beget.” Norwegians have the word fukka, which means “to copulate.” Swedish also has focka (to strike, to copulate) and fock (penis).

According to OED (Opens in a new tab), “fuck” did not appear in any English language dictionary from 1795 to 1965. The Penguin Dictionary finally made a bold move to include it in 1966 and from there it was added into other dictionaries.

Below is the false narrative exactly as I recently found it in a Facebook share:

History of the Middle Finger

Well, now … here’s something I never knew before, and now that I know it, I feel compelled to send it on to my more intelligent friends in the hope that they, too, will feel edified.
Before the Battle of Agincourt in 1415, the French, anticipating victory over the English, proposed to cut off the middle finger of all captured English soldiers. Without the middle finger it would be impossible to draw the renowned English longbow and therefore they would be incapable of fighting in the future. This famous English longbow was made of the native English Yew tree, and the act of drawing the longbow was known as “plucking the yew” (or “pluck yew”).

Much to the bewilderment of the French, the English won a major upset, and they began mocking the French by waving their middle fingers at the defeated French, saying, See, we can still pluck yew! Since ‘pluck yew’ is rather difficult to say, 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! It is also because of the pheasant feathers on the arrows used with the longbow that the symbolic gesture is known as “giving the bird.”

And yew thought yew knew every plucking thing.

I’m republishing it to show how clever and compelling these phony internet stories can be, and issue a warning: always think critically, especially when captivated.

Now, if you find anyone sharing this online misinformation in the future, you can quickly dismiss them with haughty disdain and a curt, “Oh, pluck yew!”

The accompanying hand gesture is, as always, optional.

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Rick Snedeker

Rick Snedeker is a retired American journalist/editor who now writes in various media and pens nonfiction books. He has received nine past top South Dakota state awards for newspaper column, editorial,...