I read the following line on a certain book:

We've given the proverbial middle finger to the society

I know that proverbial means something to do with a proverb. But, how the middle finger has anything to do with proverbs? Isn't it more suitable to say:

We've given the figurative/metaphoric middle finger to the society?

Is there any famous proverb that involves giving the middle finger to the society in English.

Sorry about the language, but I really need to know.

  • 1
    @gen-zreadytoperish No,it could not and should not even be here since it is about understanding text.
    – Lambie
    Commented Jul 22, 2020 at 20:06
  • Most likely a reference to the proverb "Hope for the best, give the middle finger"
    – PatrickT
    Commented Jul 24, 2020 at 7:41

8 Answers 8


proverbial = goes beyond its first meaning

Merriam Webster:

Definition of proverbial 1: of, relating to, or resembling a proverb 2: that has become a proverb or byword : commonly spoken of
the proverbial smoking gun

aka well-known or familiar, too.

No, there is no specific "proverb" associated with the middle finger. However, the middle finger gesture as an insult is well known. This is expressed as: to give someone the finger.

  • 1
    The first meaning to go beyond would be to literally remove your middle finger and give it to them. Here, proverbial means metaphorical. Commented Jul 22, 2020 at 4:07
  • Is this something a native speaker would understand? It sounds like the common German-style "den sprichwörtlichen Mittelfinger", which is often used to mean "sprichwörtlich den Mittelfinger" - which is nevertheless an awkward confusion between adjective and adverb. This would translate to "We've given the middle finger to the society proverbially." Commented Jul 22, 2020 at 7:53
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    @rexkogitans Yes, it's a normal way to say it. Commented Jul 22, 2020 at 9:58
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    @candied_orange: Well, it technically doesn't state you gave your middle finger. E.g. "I saw Hannibal Lecter eating a human hand for lunch. I told him I was feeling peckish. He gave me the middle finger."
    – Flater
    Commented Jul 22, 2020 at 14:14
  • 11
    There's kinda three levels going on here. The irrelevant literal meaning of the words, the idiomatic phrase "giving the middle finger" meaning to flash a rude gesture, and the metaphorical level where you aren't actually throwing a rude gesture, but rather saying that the way you behave in society is metaphorically flipping off the power structures that are currently in place. Commented Jul 22, 2020 at 20:35

Isn't it more suitable to say:

We've given the figurative/metaphoric middle finger to the society?

That's exactly the meaning of the phrase, yes. Typically 'proverbial' in this sense is used to refer to an actual well-known proverb or idiom. The M-W definition

1: of, relating to, or resembling a proverb
2: that has become a proverb or byword : commonly spoken of

Gives a great example: 'the proverbial smoking gun'. This doesn't refer to any actual proverb, rather, the well-known idiom 'smoking gun'.

The usage in your example is odd in that they use 'proverbial' to refer neither to a specific proverb nor to a common idiomatic expression. I'd almost go so far as to call it wrong.

  • 15
    This is one of those cases where "technically wrong" runs up against "common, and easily understood". In a formal context, the entire phrase would be inappropriate; in an informal context, it would be pedantic to distinguish "proverbial", "idiomatic", and "metaphorical", because the distinction is entirely unimportant to the message.
    – IMSoP
    Commented Jul 22, 2020 at 10:13
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    Gestures like this are considered similar to speech.
    – Barmar
    Commented Jul 22, 2020 at 12:09
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    Proverbial in this case doesn't refer to the act of giving someone the middle finger, but the use of the phrase "give the middle finger to" to mean "told to go away" or similar. Like how someone might colloquially say "I told them to piss off" when in actual fact they had said something less rude in the moment.
    – rorold
    Commented Jul 22, 2020 at 13:37
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    Counterintuitively, "proverbial" is broader than just relating to proverbs. The referenced definition in your answer reveals as much, when it states "a proverb or byword" (therefore not only proverbs!). Following up, a byword is defined as "a person or thing cited as a notable and outstanding example or embodiment of something", and it's here we find out why the middle finger is correctly labeled as "proverbial": it is being used as the embodiment (you could even call it a symbol) of a particular message, i.e. "fuck you".
    – Flater
    Commented Jul 22, 2020 at 14:18
  • 4
    this answer simply isn't accurate: a simple google search for "proverbial middle finger" will show that while it may not be the most common construction, it's hardly an uncommon phrase and the meaning would be well understood by any native speaker.
    – eps
    Commented Jul 22, 2020 at 18:08

You could certainly replace proverbial in the original sentence with metaphorical or figurative and preserve most of the meaning.

Use of "proverbial" here does two things though - as well as signifying the sentence isn't meant literally, it's also calling out the fact that "giving someone the (middle) finger" is a colloquial phrase that is often used non-literally like this.

  • It's about explaining what is there. Not rewriting anything...
    – Lambie
    Commented Jul 24, 2020 at 16:00
  • @Lambie OP asked "Isn't it more suitable to say..." to which I'm saying essentially "yes you could do that, but you'd lose some of the meaning". I'm answering the secondary question, since you've already correctly answered the main question about meaning.
    – rorold
    Commented Jul 27, 2020 at 10:09

A proverb is an idiom, metaphor, or witty saying that is well known and in general use.

On the other hand, The Book of Proverbs is a collection of common sense wisdom and advice located in the Bible.

The middle finger in the US and some other countries is a well known and commonly used (amongst some) obscene gesture meant as a pro-verb meant to silently replace the verb-like, action phrase, “GO FORNICATE YOURSELF!!” It is synonymous to placing the thumb between the middle and the ring finger in some countries. Or, giving the peace sign (index and middle finger extended only) with the back of the hand facing the intended recipient. Or, thrusting the fist upward and stopping the motion with the opposite hand against the inside of the elbow.

Since the middle finger is well known and in general use, it is proverbial.

  • 2
    The Bible thing is de trop.
    – Lambie
    Commented Jul 21, 2020 at 15:42
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    @Lambie - The OPs choice to use the word “proverbs” brings to mind The Book of Proverbs (commonly referred to, or proverbially referred to as Proverbs). If that was not their intent, they are welcome to edit the question.
    – Dean F.
    Commented Jul 21, 2020 at 15:47
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    @Mahmoud - Then, it is my error. Your statement, “But, how the middle finger has anything to do with proverbs?“, sounded to me like you were asking how the middle finger related to “Proverbs” (which is the commonly used name for The Book of Proverbs). Which it does not. There is not a Proverb nor a proverb about the middle finger. It can be called proverbial because it is so widely known and used.
    – Dean F.
    Commented Jul 21, 2020 at 18:07
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    "like you were asking how the middle finger related to “Proverbs” (which is the commonly used name for The Book of Proverbs)." It doesn't sound like that at all. The OP explicitly cited a passage with an extremely common usage of the word 'proverbial' and asked a very specific question about that passage.
    – Alex M
    Commented Jul 21, 2020 at 23:39
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    I think this is likely to muddle learners more than it helps them. The only relevance of the Book of Proverbs and the obscure technical term "pro-verb" would be to stress that they are unrelated to the phrase in question, which is a straight-forward extension of "proverbial" to refer to proverb-like metaphors.
    – IMSoP
    Commented Jul 22, 2020 at 10:20

In this example, the choice of "proverbial" seems to employ irony - there are no proverbs (to my knowledge) that refer to the rude hand gesture in question, and it gives the quote a dark humor. "Figurative" or "metaphorical" would be a more literal choice, but would remove the ironic flavor.

Per M-W, "proverbial" doesn't necessarily need to be used to refer to a term's use in a proverb; it can also be used to refer to use in an idiom.

  • 6
    It's not ironic at all.
    – Alex M
    Commented Jul 21, 2020 at 23:43

It is to be dramatic

One way to say it would be:

After careful analysis and consideration of all the various factors involved we have agreed to come to the general conclusion that we do not think there is reasonable merit to the idea.


It reads better (to some) and has more effect (again to some) as

We gave it the proverbial middle finger !!!

because of the terseness and also the image and subsequent thoughts it brings up - ('f' you, 'screw you' is the language behind middle finger often.

The appropriateness of it will depend on the social scene and settings.
Maybe ok for a night out party. less so for a work meeting ;)


The speaker wants to indicate that they are conscious that "giving the middle finger to the society" is a somewhat cliched figure of speech. Adding "proverbial" to "middle finger" is just an arch way to acknowledge that it's a somewhat shopworn expression. "Proverbial" here means something closer to "hackneyed", rather than that there is a literal proverb about giving people the middle finger. The association comes from the fact that many proverbs become trite through overuse.


Well maybe it's just me, but I got the feeling the OP has some religious concerns involved in the question. if and only if that's the case I would like you to consider the fact that some people just don't have religious attachments or restrictions attached to their minds. So some words that may be used with great care and respect by some, simply don't have the same or any value to others and may be used carelessly. Probably a person that doesn't have religious attachments won't even think that someone may attribute a sacred meaning to some words, because to them there's nothing sacred in the first place. Again only if that's the case I would like you to consider that as every religious belief should be respected, non-religious mindset should be respected equally. So try to separate the association between the religious sense of the "proverbial" word and its secular meaning, and maybe you have a better understanding of this expression.

  • I genuinely have no idea what are you talking about, and where in my question or comments have you read or perhaps (deduced) that I have no respect for secularism, or "non-religious attachments", seriously where is this coming from? I have no idea. And by the way it has been 4 years since I stopped believing in everything that doesn't have a scientific evidence
    – Rickless
    Commented Jul 24, 2020 at 11:56
  • And how is "proverbial" has "religious sense" and "secular meaning"? Could you please explain? I'd appreciate it.
    – Rickless
    Commented Jul 24, 2020 at 11:59
  • Sure... by the way you formulated the question seemed to me that you were somehow touched by using a word that may have a religious meaning with offensive language. Proverbs are frequently used in many religions and even have a book with that name in the Bible. Commented Jul 24, 2020 at 13:12
  • Some people are very sensitive to this matter and I though it could be your case. Anyway please note that I put an "if and only if" in bold letters as I really didn't know if that was the case or not. Obviously it isn't. So I'll delete the answer as soon as you read these comments. Please comment at least an ok or something to let me know you read them. :) Commented Jul 24, 2020 at 13:24

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