|The Rainbow Bridge over the American River is one of my favorite sights. The arching design that inspired the bridge’s name is so very esthetically pleasing, and the view from the bridge is beyond beautiful.I was heading to Folsom and that arching beauty when another set of arches registered in my peripheral vision. Happy Meals for my Folsom grandchildren, just the ticket for the Hungry Bunch. I wheeled into the strip mall on Auburn-Folsom Road and Greenback Lane. Negotiated the parking lot maze to the drive-through lane on auto-pilot. Down a one-way, u-turned, and whizzed into the line-up of high calorie junkies. Voila! A glance in the rearview mirror confirmed my growing suspicion that I had just committed the ultimate California insult. Someone, not as familiar with this little shopping center as I, had been trying to figure out how to enter the lane when I rolled right past them and took their sacred place. Cut them off. Honest mistake. I would do an exaggerated shrug and give them a friendly wave to show my innocence of spirit. Right.The car was now snugged up to my back bumper and the eyes of the young couple behind me glared in open hatred of, what seemed to them, my arrogance. From both the driver’s side and the passenger side they extended their arms outward with their middle fingers raised to me. I got the audio too version too. As I pulled up to the first window where the cashier takes the money, I heard myself say that I would pay for the car behind me. My subconscious had worked out a Geneva Convention solution. I’d instigated the hostility, so I’d clean it up.Now, joyfully ignoring the taps on my bumper and their overuse of the old F-word, I rolled forward and received my Chicken McNuggets and got out of there.
This sent the duo into a frenzy of farewell curses. I never got to see their reaction when they found their Big Mac’s were no-charge thanks to their instant enemy. But unlike that newscaster who used to promise ‘the rest of the story’, I will never know how they took it.
In my fertile imagination they were overcome with humility. Each silently vowed to never harass another motorist over such a minor incident again. It was my fantasy, so I imagined that the hamburgers were the most delicious they had ever put in their dirty mouths.
As I completed my journey over the river and through the hills I rolled this encounter around in my head and savored it over and over. The happy ending had defused the unpleasantness for me but I never wanted to do an encore.
And just why, I asked myself, is the old Anglo-Saxon word for an intimate encounter with opposite sex now the epitome of insult? The more I analyzed it, the more ridiculous it sounded. We have made the F word (yeah, can’t make myself write it) into our cultural buzz-word. Can any movie be made today without it being found somewhere in the script? Noun, verb, adjective, it swirls around us on the street.
So how did this get started? Here’s what I dug up and it may or may not be right on the money but I like this explanation.
Turn back the hands of time, like the R. Kelly song of the same name, and we are in jolly olde England. No, make that France. The Battle of Agincourt, 1415.
The Brits and the French are going into the last battle of the Hundred Years War. The Brits, being led by their King Henry V have sailed across the channel to fight on with their French cousins. (Hank wanted to be King of France too). They brought their weapons of war, longbows made of yew and their best long-distance missiles, arrows sharpened to a deadly point on the business end and made swifter in flight by the pheasant feathers on the other end. Okay. Remember these two key words, feathers and yew.
The French are confident, they are on home turf, so they do a little strutting and bragging about what they will do to those blokes encamped up on the hill. They make sure the blokes hear it too. They say that they will not only whip them to a standstill, they will capture all the lily-livered survivors and cut off the index and middle fingers of their right hands. They will never pluck the strings of their bows made of yew again. Got that? Pluck? Yew?
The mud was deep, the Frenchmen were on horses, carrying heavy spears , swords, and hatchets. There were 25,000 Frenchmen, 6,000 guys in tights from England. We Americans have seen enough cowboy movies to know that braggarts never win. And also, just like John Wayne, the young king of England was in the thick of things plucking a bowstring . Now I have simplified the Hundred Years War overmuch, but you get the picture.
At the end of the battle, the French were in retreat, the field was littered with 5,000 homeboys and 200 Englishmen. Did the English crow? Did they, as the Big Winners waggle their bow-plucking fingers? Did they yell Pluck Yew? Yes, they did.
If you are re-enacting this gesture right now, turn your palm toward your face. The other way around and it is a patriotic V for victory. To this very day it is not wise to confuse the two signals in the United Kingdom. (To verify that I had it right, I waggled my two fingers, palm inside, to my proper British friend who was mortified by my vulgarity. So it must be right.)
Now, from Agincourt to Mac Donald’s, how did the gesture and the wording change? American thriftiness of personal energy might explain the now one-fingered salute. And pluck to you-know-what, one scholar explains a labiodental fricative over the years gave us more of an f-sound to the expression. What is a labiodental fricative you ask. I think I saw one on the menu at Macaroni Grill, but other than that, I am clueless.
You thought I forgot about the feathers. No. That is why our most popular highway hand signal is called flagging the bird.
I’m for a new signal. Maybe we could touch our eyebrow to convey “I have just performed an unacceptable breach of driving courtesy”. And if the other driver has to express his pent-up anger, maybe a scowl would suffice, or the ever popular shame-on-you finger wag. Nobody means the literal, personal interpretation of that tired old F phrase, so let’s retire it.