I do bite my thumb at you sir!
March 17, 2010 7:32 AM   Subscribe

In one of the original Superman films, Superman flies over the world and at one point Italy. I forget exactly what happens, but I think he rights the leaning tower of Pisa and it shows two of the locals upset. One of them bites his thumb and then raises it to they sky in what must be a rude gesture. Is this gesture still done in Italy today? Bonus points if you are Italian and have done it or you are someone who has seen it in Italy within the last week or so.

That's pretty much the whole question on the front page. I'm curious to know if this gesture is still used and understood or if people resort more to the arm up version (bras d'honneur) of the finger. Thanks!
posted by fantasticninety to Grab Bag (16 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
It was commonly enough understood in Elizabethan England for Shakespeare to use it in Romeo and Juliet


Nay, as they dare. I will bite my thumb at them;
which is a disgrace to them, if they bear it.



Do you bite your thumb at us, sir?


I do bite my thumb, sir.


Do you bite your thumb at us, sir?

I don't know if they still use it, but I'd be surprised if they ever throw away a perfectly good rude gesture.
posted by Naberius at 7:42 AM on March 17, 2010 [3 favorites]

Hell, I'm an American in Missouri, and I use it!

I get funny looks, though.
posted by notsnot at 7:49 AM on March 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

I saw it at least once in Milan a couple of years ago, along with a shouted "Vaffunculo"
posted by deadmessenger at 8:01 AM on March 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

When the Scalia rude gesture brouhaha happened, I thought he'd done the thumb bite until I saw the photo of him doing the other gesture. I'm not clear which is more 'offensive'. When we went to Italy, no one used either in my presence, but I wasn't doing anything to piss someone off.
posted by nomisxid at 8:03 AM on March 17, 2010

If this is what I think it is (haven't seen the Superman film in question for a long time), then it is a transboundry gesture, In England it is meant to imply cowadace, in Italy more of "to hell with you"... some bleed though of use in sounding countries. (saw it in France for example)
posted by edgeways at 8:18 AM on March 17, 2010

It's in Superman III
posted by andrewzipp at 8:38 AM on March 17, 2010

Andrewzipp, that's the clip! If anyone wants to know what I'm talking about, click the Superman III link just above. Thanks!
posted by fantasticninety at 8:44 AM on March 17, 2010

I seen it used when working in Italy. Admittedly, this was on an offshore drilling rig where some of the social niceties aren't prevalent.
posted by arcticseal at 8:46 AM on March 17, 2010


Biting one's thumb was an old rude British gesture. It is comparable to "the finger" in modern terms. In William Shakespeare's play Romeo and Juliet, Capulet's servant Sampson precipitates a brawl by biting his thumb at the Montague's servant Abraham (Act 1, Scene 1).[17] In the scene it appears that biting one's thumb in Verona is a non-verbal equivalent of fighting words. Sampson explains the meaning of the gesture to his companion Gregory, suggesting that the gesture could have been unfamiliar even to the original audience of the play. The play does not describe the gesture in detail, but in performances of the play it is often enacted by placing the thumb upright (as in a "thumbs up" sign) just behind the upper incisors, then flicking the thumb outward in the direction of person the gesture is meant to insult. The gesture implies cowardice, someone who would "take the fig". The gesture is also a traditional Sicilian insult meaning 'to hell with you'.
posted by monkeyJuice at 9:01 AM on March 17, 2010

I'm not Italian, but i use it. It's a Shakespeare reference/subtle insult, though, not something I picked up culturally.
posted by cmoj at 10:40 AM on March 17, 2010

In almost 12 year here, I think I could probably count the number of times I've seen it used on one hand, usually by older people. But it could very well be more frequently used in other regions, so YMMV.
posted by romakimmy at 11:17 AM on March 17, 2010

i had some Irish friends who used to do this... and they considered it incredibly rude.
posted by patheral at 12:30 PM on March 17, 2010

I've lived 40 years in Italy (~10 in Tuscany, ~30 in Rome) and have never seen it used once. Remember there's really no "Italy" - regional differences are very marked and not smoothed out. But I've worked a lot in Sicily, long vacations in Sardinia, visits with in-laws in Campania, a year in Milan, and I've still never seen it.
posted by aqsakal at 7:59 AM on March 18, 2010

STOP PRESS: Mrs aqsakal (from Naples province, and whom I really should have consulted earlier) corrects me: she says the gesture is still used in Sicily as a sign of disrespect/provocation. It's not just biting the thumb: the thumb is taken between the teeth, then pressed briefly against the upper teeth until it's released and flies forward, towards the person to be insulted.

Not to be confused with Roma soccer team captain Totti's gesture of sticking his thumb in his mouth after scoring a goal: this is a homage to his newborn child (represents a pacifier|dummy) and the difference is made clear by his wide grin as he does it. Maybe romakimmy, as a keen soccer fan, might have more to add on this version.
posted by aqsakal at 5:33 AM on March 21, 2010

The only thing I can think of to add would be that Totti is not the only one that does the thumb-sucking homage to his kids (he might have been the first, but I rather doubt it) and that said homage evolved from sticking the ball under his shirt when his wife was preggers.
posted by romakimmy at 10:32 AM on March 21, 2010

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