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Churchill was sometimes photographed giving the V-for-victory symbol with the back of the hand to the photographer or crowd. Was this meant as a sly "up yours" gesture to Hitler, or just a less common variant of the gesture?

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    In absence of any evidence to the contrary, I think its fair to deploy Hanlon's Razor here. – T.E.D. Mar 13 '18 at 17:28
  • Or even "a rude gesture to photographers?" – LаngLаngС Mar 13 '18 at 19:31
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    I don't think a rude gesture to British photographers, who were just documenting the news, giving him and the government "we're all in this together" publicity, and very much "on the war effort team" would be at all in character for Churchill. – Amorphous Blob Mar 13 '18 at 21:00
  • What does it even mean when given with the back of the hand? – plocks Mar 14 '18 at 4:07
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    back of the hand - its a rude gesture allegedly first given by medieval archers to their french enemies to show that their bow-drawing hand still worked – bigbadmouse Mar 14 '18 at 8:59
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It appears that Churchill was not at first aware of the meaning of the offensive version of the gesture. While he had no title, he was very much an aristocrat, and his insight into the behaviour of the British lower classes was fairly limited. This is plausible: the UK was far more stratified by social class than it is today, which is still quite a lot compared to many other countries.

Once his aides pointed out the meaning of the palm-inwards version of the gesture, he was careful to use the palm-outwards version. The nearness of the gesture to "up yours, Hitler" may well have contributed to its popularity.

There is an earlier incident that shows Churchill being naïve about the British lower classes. When Churchill was First Sea Lord before WWI, he needed to consult King George V over the names of new battleships. One of his proposals was HMS Pitt, after one of both of the Prime Ministers of that name. George V rejected that. He had been a naval officer for many years. He knew that sailors use affectionate or mocking nicknames for their ships, the nickname for "Pitt" was just obvious and he didn't want it used. Churchill complained about that, but nobody who actually knew sailors agreed with him.

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    I'll take your (and of course Wikipedia's :D ) word for it, but I'd be very surprised if public-school (or any) boys of the late 19th century (or any era) weren't familiar with all sorts of obscene topics, speech, and gestures. – Amorphous Blob Mar 13 '18 at 20:58
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    You're going to have to help me out here. Pitt? - "nickname for "Pitt" was just obvious" - um, not to me it isn't. Give us a bigger clue! – peterG Mar 13 '18 at 22:57
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    @peterG like I said, cesspit, armpit, any pit in general, including urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=arsepit , is what comes to mind here. I wouldn't go much further than that - the source doesn't. FWIW, there's been a dozen of HMS Pitt's during the era, so the reaction to the name is probably similar to the one to Cromwell proposition (strongly exaggerated). – vaxquis Mar 14 '18 at 1:56
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    @peterG: The obvious nickname can be obtained by replacing the initial "P" of "Pitt" with "Sh". – John Dallman Mar 14 '18 at 3:52
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    While I'm loathe to trust Hollywood when it comes to history, they made such a point of this very moment in the movie Darkest Hour that I'm willing to believe you. – JBH Mar 14 '18 at 5:00
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I wanted to include the pictures of both gestures and add to the given answer.

The gesture was explained to Churchill many times according to his private secretary and Churchill continued to use both the victory sign and the vulgar sign interchangeable with palm facing both ways before he eventually did confine himself to the victory sign (palm facing outwards). As for why once informed he continued to use the vulgar gesture, maybe he was not entirely put off the public surmising he was giving Hitler a private vulgar message with the gesture, or perhaps he just had bigger things on his mind at that point early in the war.

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