Saturday, December 18, 2010

'Extract the digit': a vulgar expression?

This question has arisen as a result of use of the expression in a speech made at a public speaking club a couple of months ago. The speech was made by a relatively new member of the club who said something like: ‘The time had come for me to extract the digit and get on with it...’. The subsequent reaction of some members to use of this phrase has made it extremely difficult for him (and several other members including myself) to continue their membership of the club. Members have been told by one of the longest-serving and most distinguished club members that it is not appropriate to vote for people who use such expressions as ‘best speaker’ at club meetings.

If the issue had been raised for discussion in general business, I would have made the point that I cannot remember hearing the expression before Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, told British businessmen that it was time they pulled their fingers out about 50 years ago (when I was finishing secondary school). He was reported as saying:
‘Gentlemen, I think it is about time we “pulled our fingers out” … If we want to be more prosperous we're simply got to get down to it and work for it. The rest of the world does not owe us a living’: Speech in October, 1961.

I am not sure that mentioning Prince Philip would have been persuasive, however, since the role of members of the royal family in setting social standards is now less widely accepted than it was 50 years ago. Given Prince Philip’s reputation for making social gaffes, some members of our club would possibly consider him, also, to be too rough around the edges to be voted as best speaker.

How can we judge whether or not ‘extract the digit’ should now be viewed as a socially acceptable use of language? It might be relevant to consider whether use of this expression still ranks amongst Prince Philip’s biggest social gaffes. It doesn’t. It is not even included in this long list compiled by BBC news.

A Google search for the phrase ‘pull your finger out’ reveals widespread current usage in Australia. The contexts suggest that it is usually intended to be offensive, but I think most people who are told to pull their fingers out are more likely to be offended by the implication that they are wasting time or procrastinating than by the vulgarity of the expression.

The origins of the expression do not necessarily support a vulgar interpretation. One theory, noted here, is that the expression originated during the times of the Men'o'War. When a cannon was loaded, a small amount of powder was poured into the ignition hole near the base of the weapon. In order to keep the powder secure before firing, a crew member pushed one of their fingers into the hole. When the time came for ignition, the crewman was told to pull his finger out.

Perhaps the apparent vulgarity of the expression lies solely in the imagination of those who think that the metaphor must refer to removal of a finger from a bodily orifice.


Anonymous said...

Hi Winton,
What an odd thing to say in a speech. Yes it is widely used in Australia, and usually said in the text of "hurry up" or "what is the hold up", this is how I have always taken the phrase. I have heard people say this at barbeque's,(especially if someone is starting to get hungry) with others joining in, and people laughing.

But to say it in a speech, I don't think that is acceptable at all, and I cannot work out why it would of been said. Very inappropriate I feel.

Winton Bates said...

Thanks for your comment, Mags. If I had been evaluating I might have made a comment to the effect that it would have been better not to have said it because someome might be offended.
But I find it most objectionable to be told that it is inappropriate to vote for a person who uses such an expression.

Anonymous said...

Hi Winton,

Nice comment! I was there and heard the expression at the time of the speech. And frankly, I didn't even register the vulgarity of it - so many more crass expressions are used in that environment, especially by the older women present, that pulling a digit out seemed quite tame at the time.

Now that I've left, and looking back, it seems quite clear that we generally accept or not accept something depending on previous behaviour / phrases of others in that same group of people.

People are influenced by those around them, and if the club generally held a higher standard than this phrase then I dare say the speaker of the phrase wouldn't have considered using it at all.

Winton Bates said...

Another anonymous commentator has reponded to the first, expressing the view that: 'Complaining about his speech was a formal outlet for addressing more considerable problems'.

I have withdrawn the rest of the second anonymous comment because it would have invited a further response of a similar kind. I don't want my blog being used as a forum for personal abuse.

Discussion of this post is now closed.

Aaron Elson said...

Please allow me to provide a little historical background. During World War II, there was a Japanese prison compound in Rangoon, Burma, that held many British, Indian and American soldiers and fliers. In the face of the advancing Allies, the Japanese guards abandoned the camp, with about 700 prisoners still inside, around May 3, 1945, with explosions and a battle still going on in the city.
British prisoners climbed to the roof of two of the long cellblocks. On one, in white paint, they wrote "Japs Gone." On the other, they wrote "British here" in letters easy to read from the air.
A British plane dropped a bomb on the compound, possibly interpreting the message as a ruse.
The prisoners then returned to the roof and replaced "British here" with "Extract digit," a phrase that could not possibly have been written by the Japanese. Upon seeing this, a British plane attempted to land at a nearby airfield but was damaged when it ran over a shell crater. The crew then walked to the prison compound and discovered it to be liberated, after which supplies were dropped in.
There is photographic evidence of this, if you do a google image search on "extract digit." I'm an oral historian who interviewed a former prisoner of the compound, who initially told me the story.

Winton Bates said...

Thanks Aaron. That is a great story.

Piermont Steve said...

My father was a prisoner in the Rangoon Prison during WWII. He told me about "Extract Digit" when I was young. He also said that after the Japanese abandoned the prison, the prisoners, being very hungry, searched for food - and came across cartons of pâté de foie gras, which the Japanese would not touch.

Anonymous said...

That story about Rangoon Prison is repeated by Neville Shute in The Checquer Board.
The prisoners write "Japs Gone" on the roof of the prison, but worried the British will think it's a trap, they write, "Extract digit," which no Japanese could have written.