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Madonna performs during the halftime show with Nicki Minaj (L) and M.I.A. in the NFL Super Bowl XLVI football game in Indianapolis, Indiana, February 5, 2012. (MIKE SEGAR/Mike Segar/Reuters)
Madonna performs during the halftime show with Nicki Minaj (L) and M.I.A. in the NFL Super Bowl XLVI football game in Indianapolis, Indiana, February 5, 2012. (MIKE SEGAR/Mike Segar/Reuters)

Where did the term 'flipping the bird' come from? Add to ...

You didn’t have to watch the Super Bowl to learn about rapper MIA’s middle-fingered salute during Madonna’s performance Sunday – the internet was quick to light up with criticism from moralizers and push-back from those who took it in stride.

But absent in the debate was any solid information on the basis for the coy term – “flipping the bird” – favoured by many newspapers as the PG description for an obscene gesture dating back millennia.

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According to some sources, in the 19th century one could “give a bird” as a symbol of derision or displeasure. This could be a hissing sound, much like a goose, used by theatre-goers in Australia. In England, it could be closer to what is known now as a Bronx cheer or raspberry.

Although the etymological progression is unclear, it would appear that some time in the 20th century proffering the middle finger came to be seen as a silent way to give a bird. Perhaps because of the gesture involved, the term became “flipping the bird.”

Of course, a more obscure meaning for the term is to upend a pigeon, exposing its genitalia.

Just as well MIA didn’t do that before 110-million television viewers. One can only imagine the response from the Parents Television Council.

Follow on Twitter: @moore_oliver

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