The V sign is a hand gesture in which the first and second fingers are raised and parted, whilst the remaining fingers are clenched. With palm inwards, in the United Kingdom and some other English speaking countries, it is an obscene insulting gesture of defiance. During World War II, Winston Churchill popularised its use as a "Victory" sign (for V as in victory) initially with palm inwards and later in the war palm outwards. In the United States, with the palm outwards, and more recently, occasionally inward as well, it is also used to mean "Peace", a meaning that became popular during the peace movement of the 1960s. In East Asia the gesture is commonly used with the palm outward, connoting positive meaning.
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 two" and as "The Vicky" in the West of Scotland, as it is also known, 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; its use is largely restricted to the UK, Ireland, Australia and New Zealand. It is frequently used to signify defiance (especially to authority), contempt or derision.
As an example of the V sign (palm inward) as an insult, on 1 November 1990, The Sun, a popular 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 suggested that more European integration might be a good thing. 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 simply 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.
On April 3, 2009, Scottish football players Barry Ferguson and Allan McGregor were permanently banned from the Scottish national squad for showing the V sign while sitting on the bench during the game against Iceland. Both players had been in their hotel bar drinking alcohol after the Scottish defeat to Holland until around 11 am the next morning, meaning that both of the players breached the SFA discipline code before the incident as well, but the attitude shown by the V sign was considered to be so rude that the SFA decided never to include these players in the national line-up again. Ferguson also lost the captaincy of Rangers as a result of the controversy.
According to a popular legend the two-fingers salute and/or V sign derives from the gestures of longbowmen fighting in the English army at the Battle of Agincourt (1415) during the Hundred Years' War. The story claims that the French claimed that they would cut off the arrow-shooting fingers of all the English longbowmen after they had won the battle at Agincourt. But the English came out victorious and showed off their two fingers, still intact. Historian Juliet Barker quotes Jean Le Fevre (who fought on the English side at Agincourt) as saying that Henry V included a reference to the French cutting off longbowmen's fingers in his pre-battle speech. If this is correct it confirms that the story was around at the time of Agincourt, although it doesn't necessarily mean that the French practised it, just that Henry found it useful for propaganda, and it does not show that the 'two-fingers salute' is derived from the hypothetical behaviour of English archers at that battle. Indeed, there is no record of this explanation for the V sign before the 1970s, and it seems to be a popular myth.
It was not until the start of the 20th century that clear evidence of the use of insulting V sign in England became available, when in 1901 a worker outside Parkgate ironworks in Rotherham used the gesture, (captured on the film), to indicate 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.
Desmond Morris discussed various possible origins of the V sign in Gestures: Their Origins and Distribution, (published 1979) and came to no definite conclusion:
because of the strong taboo associated with the gesture (its public use has often been heavily penalized). 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 recognized 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
Winston Churchill used a V sign in both versions to symbolize "V for Victory" during World War II. Early on in the war he used palm in (sometimes with a cigar between the fingers). Later in the war he used palm out. It is claimed that the aristocratic Churchill made the change after it was explained to him what it signified to the other classes in Britain. He developed the idea from a BBC campaign.
During World War II, Victor de Lavelaye suggested that Belgians, who were chalking up the letters RAF, should add a V for victoire or vrijheid (respectively French for "victory" and Dutch for "freedom"). Since V stands for "victory" in French, Charles de Gaulle used it in every speech (from 1942–1969). This idea was developed by the BBC and on 20 July 1941 a campaign was launched with a message from Churchill for occupied Europe. The Channel islanders also joined in the Churchill's V sign campaign by daubing the letter 'V' (for Victory) over German signs.
Douglas Ritchie, of the BBC European Service, suggested an audible V using the Morse code rhythm—three dots and a dash. This is also the rhythm of the opening bars of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony (V is the Roman numeral for 5), and it was used as the call-sign by the BBC in its foreign language programmes to occupied Europe for the rest of the war. The irony that they were composed by a German was not lost on many of the audience or for the more musically educated that it was "Fate knocking on the door" of the Third Reich. ( Listen to this call-sign. (help·info))
A similar sign was used in protests against the Vietnam War (and subsequent anti-war protests) and by the counterculture as a sign of peace. Because the hippies of the day often flashed this sign (palm out) while vocalizing "Peace", it became popularly known (through association) as the peace sign.
One account of the V sign's use in portrait photographs claims that during the 1972 Winter Olympics in Sapporo, Hokkaidō figure skater Janet Lynn stumbled into Japanese pop culture when she fell during a free-skate period—but continued to smile even as she sat on the ice. Though she placed only third in the actual competition, her cheerful diligence and indefatigability resonated with many Japanese viewers, making her an overnight celebrity in Japan. Afterwards, Lynn (a peace activist) was repeatedly seen flashing the V sign in the Japanese media. Though the V sign was known of in Japan prior to Lynn's use of it there (from the post-WWII Allied occupation of Japan), she is credited by some Japanese for having popularized its use in amateur photographs. According to another theory, the V sign was popularized by the actor and singer Jun Inoue, who showed it in a Konica photo camera commercial in 1972. Japanese may also be associating with their onomatopoeia (gitaigo) for smiling. The number "two" is "ni" in Japanese, and the onomatopoeia for smiling generally begins with the sound "ni-", such as "niko niko" or "niya niya."