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The V sign (U+270C ✌ victory hand in Unicode) is a hand gesture in which the index and middle fingers are raised and parted, while the other fingers are clenched. It has various meanings, depending on the cultural context and how it is presented. It has been used to represent the letter "V" as in "victory," especially by Allied troops during World War II. It is also used by people of the United Kingdom and related cultures as an offensive gesture (when displayed with the palm inward); and by many others simply to signal the number 2. Since the 1960s, when the "V sign" was widely adopted by the counterculture movement, it has come to be used as a symbol of peace (usually with palm outward).
The meaning of the V sign is partially dependent on the manner in which the hand is positioned:
The insulting version of the gesture (with the palm inwards) is often compared to the offensive gesture known as "the finger". The "two-fingered salute", also known as "The Longbowman Salute", "the two", "The Rods", "The Agincourt Salute", and as "The Tongs" in the West of Scotland and "the forks" in Australia, is commonly performed by flicking the V upwards from wrist or elbow. The V sign, when the palm is facing toward the person giving the sign, has long been an insulting gesture in England, and later in the rest of the United Kingdom; though the use of the V sign as an insulting gesture is largely restricted to the UK, Ireland, New Zealand, and Australia. It is frequently used to signify defiance (especially to authority), contempt, or derision. The gesture is not used in the United States, and is archaic in Australia and New Zealand, where the finger tends to be used in such situations instead.
As an example of the V sign (palm inward) as an insult, on November 1, 1990, The Sun, a British tabloid, ran an article on its front page with the headline "Up Yours, Delors" next to a large hand making a V sign protruding from a Union flag cuff. The Sun urged its readers to stick two fingers up at then President of the European Commission Jacques Delors, who had advocated an EU central government. The article attracted a number of complaints about its alleged racism, but the now defunct Press Council rejected the complaints after the editor of The Sun stated that the paper reserved the right to use vulgar abuse in the interests of Britain.
For a time in the UK, "a Harvey (Smith)" became a way of describing the insulting version of the V sign, much as "the word of Cambronne" is used in France, or "the Trudeau salute" is used to describe the one-fingered salute in Canada. This happened because, in 1971, show-jumper Harvey Smith was disqualified for making a televised V sign to the judges after winning the British Show Jumping Derby at Hickstead. (His win was reinstated two days later.)
Harvey Smith pleaded that he was using a Victory sign, a defence also used by other figures in the public eye. Sometimes foreigners visiting the countries mentioned above use the "two-fingered salute" without knowing it is offensive to the natives, for example when ordering two beers in a noisy pub, or in the case of the United States president George H. W. Bush, who, while touring Australia in 1992, attempted to give a "peace sign" to a group of farmers in Canberra—who were protesting about U.S. farm subsidies—and instead gave the insulting V sign.
Steve McQueen gives a British (knuckles outward) V sign in the closing scene of the 1970s motorsport movie, Le Mans. A still picture of the gesture was recorded by photographer Nigel Snowdon and has become an iconic image of both McQueen and the film. The gesture was also flashed by Spike (played by James Marsters) in "Hush", a Season 4 episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The scene was also featured in the series' opening credits for all of Season 5. It was only censored by BBC Two in its early-evening showings of the program.
The insulting V sign is presumably of late Victorian English working class origin, and replaced the older thumbing of the nose. The evidence is that it was first recorded in a film in 1901 (hence Victorian origin or earlier), is absent in the United States (hence originating post Revolutionary War), was unfamiliar to Winston Churchill at the start of World War II (when he used it for victory before being told that it was rude, hence recent working class origin), and was largely unknown in Western Europe outside of England (excepting Malta) as late as the 1970s (hence of specifically English origin). Barring any new evidence, it is unlikely that more can be said.
The first unambiguous evidence of the use of the insulting V sign in England dates to 1901, when a worker outside Parkgate ironworks in Rotherham used the gesture (captured on the film) to indicate that he did not like being filmed. Peter Opie interviewed children in the 1950s and observed in The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren that the much older thumbing of the nose (cock-a-snook) had been replaced by the V sign as the most common insulting gesture used in the playground.
Between 1975 and 1977 a group of anthropologists including Desmond Morris studied the history and spread of European gestures and found the rude version of the V-sign to be basically unknown outside the British Isles. In Gestures: Their Origins and Distribution (published 1979) Desmond discussed various possible origins of this sign but came to no definite conclusion:
because of the strong taboo associated with the gesture (its public use has often been heavily penalised). As a result, there is a tendency to shy away from discussing it in detail. It is "known to be dirty" and is passed on from generation to generation by people who simply accept it as a recognised obscenity without bothering to analyse it... Several of the rival claims are equally appealing. The truth is that we will probably never know...—Desmond Morris.
Various fanciful explanations attribute it to English archers expressing defiance towards French. There is no evidence for this and explanations are very unlikely, though it is a frequently repeated story.
A commonly repeated legend claims that the two-fingered salute or V sign derives from a gesture made by longbowmen fighting in the English and Welsh army at the Battle of Agincourt (1415) during the Hundred Years' War. According to the story, the French were in the habit of cutting off the arrow-shooting fingers of captured English and Welsh longbowmen, and the gesture was a sign of defiance on the part of the bowmen, showing the enemy that they still had their fingers, or, as a widespread pun puts it, that they could still "pluck yew". The longbow story is of unknown origin, but the "pluck yew" pun is thought to be a definitively false etymology that seems to originate from a 1996 email that circulated the story.
Such an explanation is illustrated in the graphic novel Crécy (published 2007), where the English author Warren Ellis imagined "The Longbowman Salute" being used even earlier, in 1346, by English archers toward the retreating French knights after the Battle of Crécy. In this story the lower-class longbowmen in the English Army used the sign as a symbol of their anger and defiance against the French upperclass, who had since the Norman conquest of England in 1066 subjugated the English people. However, that is a work of fiction.
The bowman etymology is unlikely, since no evidence exists of French forces (or any other continental European power) cutting off the fingers of captive bowmen; the standard procedure at the time was to summarily execute all enemy commoners captured on the battlefield (regardless of whether they were bowmen, foot soldiers or merely unarmed auxiliaries) since they had no ransom value, unlike the nobles whose lives could be worth thousands of florins apiece.
The V sign for victory may have been used since antiquity. A stone carving representing two arms making the V-sign can be found among representations of chariot racers, palms and other victory themes in the ancient stadium of the Greco-Roman city of Magnesia ad Meandrum.
On January 14, 1941, Victor de Laveleye, former Belgian Minister of Justice and director of the Belgian French-speaking broadcasts on the BBC (1940–44), suggested in a broadcast that Belgians use a V for victoire (French: “victory”) and vrijheid (Dutch: "freedom") as a rallying emblem during World War II. In the BBC broadcast, de Laveleye said that "the occupier, by seeing this sign, always the same, infinitely repeated, [would] understand that he is surrounded, encircled by an immense crowd of citizens eagerly awaiting his first moment of weakness, watching for his first failure." Within weeks chalked up Vs began appearing on walls throughout Belgium, the Netherlands, and northern France.
Buoyed by this success, the BBC started the "V for Victory" campaign, for which they put in charge the assistant news editor Douglas Ritchie posing as “Colonel Britton”. Ritchie suggested an audible V using its Morse code rhythm (three dots and a dash). As the rousing opening bars of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony had the same rhythm, the BBC used this as its call-sign in its foreign language programmes to occupied Europe for the rest of the war. The more musically educated also understood that it was the Fate motif "knocking on the door" of the Third Reich. ( Listen to this call-sign. (help·info)). The BBC also encouraged the use of the V gesture introduced by de Laveleye.
By July 1941, the emblematic use of the letter V had spread through occupied Europe. On July 19, Prime Minister Winston Churchill referred approvingly to the V for Victory campaign in a speech, from which point he started using the V hand sign. Early on he sometimes gestured palm in (sometimes with a cigar between the fingers). Later in the war, he used palm out. After aides explained to Churchill what the palm in gesture meant to other classes, he made sure to use the appropriate sign. Other allied leaders used the sign as well; since 1942, Charles de Gaulle used the V sign in every speech until 1969.
The Germans could not remove all the signs, so adopted the V Sign as a German symbol, sometimes adding laurel leaves under it, painting their own V's on walls, vehicles and adding a massive V on the Eiffel Tower.
In 1942, Aleister Crowley, a British occultist, claimed to have invented the usage of a V-sign in February 1941 as a magical foil to the Nazis' use of the Swastika. He maintained that he passed this to friends at the BBC, and to the British Naval Intelligence Division through his connections in MI5, eventually gaining the approval of Winston Churchill. Crowley noted that his 1913 publication Magick featured a V-sign and a swastika on the same plate.
U.S. President Richard Nixon used the gesture to signal victory in the Vietnam War, an act which became one of his best-known trademarks. He also used it on his departure from public office following his resignation in 1974.
Protesters against the Vietnam War (and subsequent anti-war protests) and counterculture activists adopted the gesture as a sign of peace. Because the hippies of the day often flashed this sign (palm out) while saying "Peace", it became popularly known (through association) as the peace sign.
The V sign, primarily palm-outwards, is very commonly made by Japanese people, especially younger people, when posing for informal photographs, and is known as piisu sain (ピースサイン?, peace sign), or more commonly simply piisu (ピース?, peace). As the name reflects, this dates to the Vietnam War era and anti-war activists, though the precise origin is disputed. The V sign was known in Japan from the post-World War II Allied occupation of Japan, but did not acquire the use in photographs until later.
In Japan, it's generally believed that was influenced by Beheiren's anti-Vietnam War activists in the late 1960s and Konica's advertisement in 1971. A more colorful account of this practice claims it was influenced by the American figure skater Janet Lynn during the 1972 Winter Olympics in Sapporo, Hokkaidō. She fell during a free-skate period, but continued to smile even as she sat on the ice. Though she placed third in the competition, her cheerful diligence and persistence resonated with many Japanese viewers. Lynn became an overnight foreign celebrity in Japan. A peace activist, Lynn frequently flashed the V sign when she was covered in Japanese media, and she is credited by some Japanese for having popularized its use since the 1970s in amateur photographs.
In Mainland China, Hong Kong, South Korea and Taiwan, the V sign is the most popular pose in photographs. It is used in both casual and formal settings. It is not widely known to Hong Kongers, Koreans or Taiwanese that the V sign can mean "peace" or be used as an insult; some may believe that the meaning of the sign is "victory" or "yeah" (implies the feeling of being happy). They use it both ways (palm facing the signer and palm facing forward).
A V was stamped on Norwegian stamps by the German government during the occupation of Norway. The symbol was meant to signify victory over the Bolsheviks, but was soon adopted as a symbol of Allied victory by the occupied population.A Norwegian stamp of August 1941.
During the German occupation of Jersey, a stonemason repairing the paving of the Royal Square incorporated a V for victory under the noses of the occupiers. This was later amended to refer to the Red Cross ship Vega. The addition of the date 1945 and a more recent frame has transformed it into a monument.
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