Well, Bill Russell did it again. A couple weeks ago, former Boston Celtics’ Hall of Famer Bill Russell gave Charles Barkley the Finger during the NBA Awards show. His response? “I forgot I was on live TV;” and, really, after all, he always gives Sir Charles the Finger. More recently, when he was in Las Vegas to watch NBA Summer League Games, Russell gave Vince Carter the Finger. According to reports, Carter cracked up – no pun intended.

So, really, what’s the deal? Why is extending the middle finger, with the other fingers held under the thumb, such an insult?

Interestingly, research suggests that people have used the Finger to insult and belittle others for more than two thousand years. From ancient Greeks and Roman soldiers, to today’s athletes, pop stars, and even schoolchildren, all understand the Finger as a gesture’s with the power to insult or anger others.

As anthropologist Desmond Morris points out, the Finger “is one of the most ancient insult gestures known.” He continues, the middle finger represents the penis and the curled fingers on the sides are the testicles. Thus, giving someone the finger is a phallic gesture that tells people you find them less than – well, whatever.

Whatever, the gesture of giving someone the Finger is widely known to North Americans as “flipping the bird.” Historically, the Romans called it digitus impudicus – translated as “shameless, indecent, and offensive.” Not a sign to others that you like or appreciate them.

Roman historians wrote that the German tribesmen – remember the Russell Crowe movie The Gladiator – gave the Finger to attacking Roman soldiers. Even monkeys have been seen to give the Finger to other monkeys. In sports, the Finger was documented as early as 1886, when a pitcher for baseball’s early Boston Beaneaters gave others the Finger during a team photograph taken with rival New York Giants.

There is an entire story about giving the Finger – with some cultural differences – but mostly it goes back through history during times of war. No longer. These days, the Finger is “simply” a mildly offensive gesture that has spread throughout cultural and crossed international borders. Today, it is regularly seen at protests, sports games, rock concerts, and even, as Bill Russell has shown, on television awards shows.

During a Canadian House of Commons debate in 2004, a Calgary MP gave the Finger to a member from another party who had been heckling him. As the offending MP Deepak Obhrai noted, “I expressed my displeasure to him, let’s put it this way.”

Things have changed even since 2004, and no longer does the Finger symbolize a phallus; in truth, it is probably no longer even seen as obscene or offensive. The Finger is so much a part of everyday life that it has come to mean very little. That said, if someone gives it to me – I wouldn’t like it. Still old school, I guess. And I certainly wouldn’t give it to Charles Barkley.