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The Weekly Shriek -- Flipping the Bird

'Huawei': A foreshadowing name?

Chinesepod's Carlie discusses the meaning of the name 'Huawei' in light of the recent national security concerns of the Whitehouse


When I was eight, a boy on the play ground excitedly told Sister Mary Wilhelmina that Johnny Brown (names have been changed to protect the guilty and because I can no longer remember them) had flipped him the bird. Horrified, I imagined a little brown sparrow being tossed tail over beak from one child to another.

When I was ten, a man in a beat up 1948 Ford beeped his horn and swerved around us as we were driving down Towson Avenue. "Look at that," my dad snorted. "He tossed me the bird." Now, I'm not stupid. I knew it wasn't the same bird that Johnny Brown had flipped two years before - but I couldn't figure out where these guys were getting all these birds. I spent a lot of time one summer trying to catch a little hummer zipping around the morning glories on our front porch. I can testify to avian agility and elusiveness. Of course, that explained why the bird tossed by the unhappy driver was no where to be seen. My dad must have missed the toss and the feathery lil sucker had flown away.

When I was thirteen, I joined the pep squad for an hour and twenty-three minutes. It's not that I wasn't peppy, but I couldn't understand why anyone would want to spell out "Go Buffaloes" by holding up blue and white pieces of square cardboard - and why if we did it well, our efforts would make football players play any better. Besides doing anything in unison had become burdensome for me by that time - but that's another shriek. Anyway, one of the first things we did was ride down Garrison Avenue on a float in our cute little uniforms. As we approached Immaculate Conception Church, we passed a farmer loading a big sack of something smelly into the back of his truck. We went into our act about that time, cheering and shaking our pom-poms. He scowled and showed us his middle finger. I was shocked. Clearly this guy didn't find us as adorable as we presumed ourselves to be - and even though I'd never seen that gesture before, there was no mistaking its rude meaning. "Did you see what that man did?" The girl next to me pointed at the unrepentant culprit who'd already gotten in his pickup and was backing away from the curb. "Never mind," Sister Mary Wihelmina clapped her hands and started the next cheer. The other members of the team joined her, but I was busy pondering why a perfect stranger would be so mean to a bunch of giggling little girls. It wouldn't be the last time a snarling face spoiled a good time for me.

A couple years later, a young man clued me in on the true meaning of the gesture. However, no one seemed to know why extending the middle finger was called "flipping the bird."

"It's phallic," one of my more precocious friends explained. "And they call male genitalia a bird."

Hm.

"What kind of bird?" I asked.

"Oh, Joyce." She shook her head and powdered her nose as though that answered my question - then she stopped for a minute. "A swan maybe? Or an ostrich?"

I envisaged a man with a long white feathered appendage with a beak at the end. "I don't see it," I said finally. "It doesn't seem practical. Seems to me if it's anything it should be a snake."

"Flipping a snake doesn't sound right," she said.

"Would probably break its neck," I agreed.

We were horrified at the thought of a poor crumpled serpent writhing in the grass.

"Would be hard on a bird too," she observed.

"Technically, you aren't flipping anything," I pointed out. "It's more like you are jabbing."

"And it's only your finger," she conceded.

"Maybe it's like that saying, that the darkest clouds have a silver lining."

She dropped her powder puff. "What?"

"You know, like God gives us rain to make us appreciate the sun?"

"What's that got to do with giving anyone the finger?"

"You use your thumb for hitching a ride and thumbing your nose, right?"

She squinted.

"And you use your index finger to point."

"Okay?"

"Your ring finger is for rings."

She brightened. "Yeah."

"Your pinkie is what babies hold onto."

"What's any of this got to do with flipping someone the bird?"

"Well," I said. "What's the purpose of your middle finger?"

She stared at her hand, wiggling first the right middle finger and then the left. "I don't know."

"That's about all it does, right?"

I could see that the thought upset her. "I sometimes use it to scratch my nose," she said hopefully.

"No, you don't."

"No, I don't." She sighed. "So how's that like the silver lining in clouds?"

"Don't you see? The only thing we use that finger for is to express our disdain for someone. We use it to be mean."

"And?"

"So God puts irritating people in our path so that our middle fingers have a function."

She stared at me with her mouth open.

"Think about it," I said. "If there were fewer jerks in the world, we'd only have four fingers."

It made sense at the time.