The Yew Tree And Other Pluckers

Understanding of words is critical to successful communication. On any level, it is smart to know what is being said. That also must include recognition and comprehension of some unpleasantries we all experience, sooner or later, in the daily societal combat we call life.

More specifically, there is a two word instructional phrase, that carries with it a one-fingered salute, which most of us have received or given by the time we reach adulthood. Recently, a story has been circulating in social media providing an interesting, and possibly heretofore unknown explanation of the etymology and symbolism accompanying this recognizable salute.

Although any serious logophile would have researched the long history of this phrase’s colorful word, and found it to have originated in Ancient Greek and Roman cultures; many today are purporting its usage began with the 1415 French and English battle at Agincourt.

At this battle, the French were favored to win. So much so, they threatened to cut off a certain body part from all captured English soldiers. To everyone’s surprise, the English won the battle, and taunted their French adversaries by waving that body part at them.

What were they waving? Their middle finger! Without this appendage, an English longbow, made of the native English yew tree, would have been impossible to draw. And what was the act of drawing an English longbow called? Plucking yew, of course. The story continues that when English soldiers were waving their middle fingers at the defeated French soldiers, the shouts rang out they still could pluck yew! Victory was theirs! Middle finger waving! Pluck yew!

An additional aspect of this intriguing etymology is the phrase “giving someone the bird”. Once known as a pleasant mother pheasant plucker, everyone knew this was the person to whom one went for feathers used in making arrows for the longbow; ergo, giving someone the bird was simply providing pheasant feathers to make arrows.

As the story concludes, and all actual historical evidence of ancient usage shoved aside, we are supposed to believe the letters “pl” in pluck changed over time to an easier spoken “f”. It makes for a slightly plausible explanation; however, when all is said and done, one thing which cannot be ignored in today’s account of the waving finger’s origin, and a very offensive instruction that goes with it, is everyone knows an archer plucks a bow string, not the wood of a yew bow, itself.

Plucking yew, pleasant mother pheasant pluckers, arrows, waving fingers, and victorious taunts from battling archers have provided a clever, but way too recent history of one word. It is creative, but inaccurate. For accuracy, a student of language, both polite and not, must return to the oldest records of word usage. Therein, one finds where and how our language came about, and who is responsible for some of the things we say, or on second thought, even if one is an archer, probably should not say.

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