Putting the Finger on History

I was recently skulking around the nether regions of the internet in pursuit of some facts regarding the English yew, Taxus baccata. The latin means ‘bow’ and ‘berry bearing’. However I stumbled across a much more interesting factoid….

Before the relatively recent introduction of fire arms the fighting of wars was a very crude affair. Weaponry (Romans asside) centered around the idea of pointy sticks and heavy blunt objects. Fighting entailed a great deal of up close and personal contact with ones enemy.

The English, being a civilised and generally gentlemanly bunch, hell bent on world domination, were concerned about the uncouth practices of war and sought to bring a little decorum to the battlefields of the time. The result marched straight into the history books proudly waving the banner ‘English Longbow’.

The English Longbow consisted of a long strip of English yew especially grown for the purpose. Yew has very defined and distinctive red heartwood and yellow sapwood. The trick was to split the wood so that one side was of powerful heartwood and the other was flexible, springy sapwood. The combination of the two made a bow that whilst requiring a powerful arm to draw could unleash an arrow with such force that you could practically shoot the French from atop the cliffs of Dover and in complete safety. As a result the English armies became practically invincible.

At the Battle of Agincourt. The French, who were overwhelmingly favored to win the battle, threatened to cut a certain body part off of all captured English soldiers so they could never fight again. The English won in a major upset and waved the body part in question at the French in defiance. What was this body part?

This may clear up some profound questions of etymology, folklore and emotional symbolism…

The body part which the French proposed to cut off of the English after defeating them was, of course, the middle finger, without which it is impossible to draw the English longbow. The act of drawing the longbow was known amongst the rank and file as “plucking yew”. Thus, when the victorious English waved their middle fingers at the
defeated French, they said, “See, we can still PLUCK YEW!”

Over the years some folk etymologies have grown up around this symbolic gesture. Since ‘pluck yew’ is rather difficult to say (like “pleasant mother pheasant plucker”, which is who you had to go to for the feathers used on the arrows), 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 are mistakenly thought to have something to do with an intimate encounter.

It is also because of the pheasant feathers on the arrows that the symbolic gesture is known as “giving the bird”.


Graham Potter
Kaizen Bonsai

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