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Chaos Manor Special Reports

Pluck the Yew

Last Update:

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

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The BYTE Fiasco


I have put all these letters into one place because there seemed to be considerable interest in these stories. I am not endorsing them as true.

Dear Everybody:

A bit of interesting history.

Subject: Plucking the Yew! Before the Battle of Agincourt in 1415, the French, anticipating victory over the English, proposed to cut off the middle finger of all captured soldiers. Without the middle finger it would be impossible for the English soldiers to draw the renowned English longbow and therefore incapable of fighting in the future. The famous bow was made of the English Yew tree and the act of drawing the longbow was known as "plucking the yew" or "pluck you". Much to the bewilderment of the French, the English won the battle and began mocking the French by waving their middle fingers at the defeated French and saying "We can still pluck yew. Pluck you". 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 that yew knew everything.

Oh dear.

And in a less serious vein

Some resources regarding the story of Agincourt, as found on the web, etc

The full story (but there are many others) 


Regarding the hand gestures, etc

As seen here: 

"I would like to clarify an inaccuracy on your pages concerning the battle of Agincourt and the threat to cut off fingers. The actual threat was to cut off the middle and first finger as BOTH were required to pull back a traditional yew longbow, it is true that this lead to a gesture of defiance, but it was in fact the English V sign, not to be confused with the reversed V associated with "victory" and Churchill after the second world war."

"The 'Bird' is a purely American invention, and I am not sure of the origin, although I'm sure there is some connection."

"As an Englishman living in America, I am constantly amused when people hold up these fingers to signify 'two' and are unaware of what it means to any English born person! I hope this clarifies, hopefully accurately, some facts on your otherwise excellent website."


There is also this bit as seen here: 

V-SIGN n. 1. Clenched fist with the index and first finger raised to form a V shape (meaning "victory"). 2. Clenched fist with the index and first finger raised to form a V shape (being a rude insult to the audience).

These two forms are distinguished by the direction of the knuckles: knuckles toward audience being an insult (2) and knuckles toward the gesticulator meaning victory (1). Winston Churchill was much given to getting these confused. Use of form (2) to indicate the number two may result in unexpected GBH. (whatever that is)


Then from Dante is "the obscene gesture known as 'the figs'..."

I have many more letters on this, and I am going to start a page analogous to the "Bob's your uncle" page to collect all this stuff; there's just too much of it. I would not have known that the origin of obscene gestures was that interesting to that many people...

Oh boy. I've seen this corruption of the original story around for a few years now.

The slightly more believable, but still apocryphal, version of it concerns the origin of the "V-sign" salute. This seems to be more known in Britain than in the States, which might be why the story was twisted round to refer to the impudent digit instead. So far as I know, references to "the finger" go back as far as Roman times (maybe further), it's a truly ancient insult.

The original tale said that after Agincourt (or maybe Crecy - it depends on which version you find) the English cut off the first two fingers from the hands of captured French bowmen, to prevent them from drawing a bow again. The English subsequently used the "two finger salute" as a jeering gesture at French soldiers.

I believe I first came across the story in Robert Hardy's "the Longbow: a civil and military history" (highly recommended), but I don't recall the provenance he assigned to it.

- Rik Meucci.

"This communication is intended solely for the addressee and is confidential and not for third party unauthorised distribution."

In Wednesday's mail you had a little blurb about the origin of giving someone the bird. I remembered seeing it somewhere else and tracked it down. It comes from a Straight Dope article that is on-line at:

 Thanks Kevin Workman

The problem with those "straight dope" and other debunker sites is that you must then rely on the authority of those who maintain them. The story there seems not unreasonable, but then most such stories don't. In this case I am inclined to believe their sources. The use of "the bird" as an insulting gesture is far older than England. The straight dope site seems to have survived quite well.

Well the story sounds nice, but the 'fricative labile' consonant version of attributed as the changed form of the first word is actually middle English, and long predates Agincourt (and Crecy and Poitiers too!).

Now "F*** You" and 2 fingers ( to show that one can still 'pluck yew') make more sense as an insult.

And by the way, GBH stands for Grievous Bodily Harm as in 'assault with intent to commit' which is/was a form of criminal charge wording used in British criminal law.


Oh, that drift never made linguistic sense and I never credited it for a moment. Anyway, I suspect yeomen were perfectly capable of using the Saxon words against the French.  Their Norman lords and Plantagenet kings may have spoken French, but the foot soldiers were Saxon and Welsh.

Whether or not the archers were accustomed to hold up two fingers as an insult to the French, we can be pretty certain that they said something pithier than "pluck yew".

Folk etymology is always fun but seldom accurate.

We do know that William the Conqueror's mother was the daughter of a tanner, and he was insulted by the French who hung leather hides over the wall. William, usually a generous man when not on the battlefield, took a terrible revenge.

tells the story.