10 Common Hand Gestures and Their Origins

by Unbelievable Facts6 years ago
Picture 10 Common Hand Gestures and Their Origins

Gesturing with our hands come naturally to us, be it the middle finger or the thumbs-up. We have been using gestures like these since time began. But have you ever tried to consider the fact that even though these gestures seem so normal and easy, each of them has an origin? Well, we bet you never think about it! So, we bring to you 10 common hand gestures and their origins. Read on to find out more!

1 The V-sign was originally a derogatory gesture. It was only during WWII that a Belgian politician, through a BBC radio broadcast, urged people to use the letter V for victoire (French for “victory”) and vrijheid (Dutch for “freedom”) as a symbol of resistance.

Winston Churchill V sign, V gesture
Image credits: British Government/Wikimedia, Iwan Novirion at Indonesian Wikipedia/Wikimedia

The V-sign, or the Victory sign, is one of the most common hand gestures in which the index and the middle fingers are raised. They are then parted while the other fingers of your hand are clenched into your fist. Although we generally use the sign to denote victory or peace, the sign stands for different meanings depending on the culture and the time when it was used. For example, in some countries, primarily the Commonwealth nations, the V-sign with the back of your hand away from you has been considered as an offensive gesture. While in WWII, it was used to symbolize freedom. Later, in some countries like Japan, the sign was also used as a gesture while appearing in photos.

For a long time, the V-sign gesture or “the finger” has prevailed as a derogatory gesture in England. This spread to other parts of United Kingdom and also Australia, Ireland, India, New Zealand, and Pakistan. A common legend that suggests the origin of the gesture claims that it was derived from a gesture made by the longbowmen who were fighting in the Hundred Years’ War. The legend goes that when the longbowmen were captured by the French, their index and middle fingers were cut off so that they could no longer operate a bow and arrow. Hence, the V-sign was used by uncaptured bowmen as an act of defiance. But there is no primary source that could verify this legend.

Anyway, the V-sign evolved into the modern-day Victory sign on January 14, 1941. On this day, the former Belgian Minister of Justice,  Victor de Laveleye, used a BBC radio broadcast to urge the Belgians to use a “V” as their emblem while rallying during the WWII. The V stood for victoire which means “victory” in French and vrijheid which means “freedom” in Dutch. This was so widely accepted by the people that the BBC ran a “V for Victory” campaign. The emblematic symbolism of the letter V spread across occupied Europe, and even  Prime Minister Winston Churchill began acknowledging the V hand sign.

In 1942, a British occultist by the name of Aleister Crowley claimed himself as the inventor of the V-sign and claimed that it was he who passed it on to his friends in BBC. But his story has never been proven. (source)


2 The origin of the middle finger can be dated back to ancient Rome and Greece where people believed that an extended middle finger resembled a man’s reproductive organ and supposedly had the power to ward off the evil eye. It was also used as a means to insult the receiver.

Middle Finger Gesture
Image credit: Pixabay

One of the most common hand gestures that we use on a day-to-day basis in the middle finger. For some of us, it speaks a thousand words! In most cultures, it is used as a way to display contempt. Sometimes it is used humorously or playfully without any intentional disrespect towards the receiver.

Like today, the middle finger gesture was used to insult the receiver in ancient times as well. It was used as a symbol of sexual intercourse and giving the finger to someone meant to threaten or intimidate the person receiving the gesture. During the 1st century, in many Mediterranean countries, the gesture was seen as a representation of the penis with the fingers next to the middle finger representing the testicles. This close association with the male reproductive organ caused the gesture to make its way to Apotropaic magic which is practiced to drive away the evil influences.

Jesse Sheidlower, a linguist, has traced the appearance of the gesture in the US to the 1890s. Desmond Morris, an anthropologist, believes that the gesture might have entered the US via Italian immigrants. The first documented reference of the finger was in 1886 in a photograph. In it, a pitcher for the Boston Beaneaters baseball team, Radbourn, was giving the finger to one of the members of the New York Giants, the rival team. (source)


3 The shaka or “hang loose” gesture originated when a Hawaiian named Hamana Kalili lost his three middle fingers in a sugar mill accident. His all-clear wave of thumb and pinkie is said to have evolved into the shaka as kids began imitating the gesture.

Hang Loose Gesture
Image Credits: Kim/Flickr, Pixabay

The shaka sign, which is commonly known as “the hang loose” sign, is a gesture associated with the surf communities. The gesture has been adopted by visiting surfers from the Hawaiian surfing community and has made its way throughout the world. It primarily signifies greeting or expressing gratitude to one another.

As far as the origin of the gesture, the most prevalent lore is that of a person by the name of Hamana Kalili, a resident of Laie, used to work at the Kahuku Sugar Mill. Unfortunately, he lost the three middle fingers on his right hand in a tragic accident. Since he could no longer perform any physical work that required the use of his hands, Kalili was shifted to the job of guarding the sugar train. To give an all-clear signal to the train, Kalili would wave his thumb and pinkie. This was imitated by the children there and eventually, it evolved into the shaka.

There are other theories as well that are used to explain the origin of the shaka. In one theory, it is said that Spanish immigrants would fold their middle three fingers and bring the thumb to their mouth to symbolize a friendly gesture of sharing drinks with the native Hawaiian people. Another theory also says that the first shakas were used by whalers when they had to signal a catch.

Lippy Espinda, an entertainer, has also been identified as the creator of the shaka. He is known to have used the sign and the term during many of his television ads. Even though the claim of him being the creator is debatable, he has surely played a part in increasing the popularity of the shaka as a positive gesture. (source)


4 The handshake in ancient Greece was originally believed to be used to make sure that the person you were meeting wasn’t carrying a concealed weapon. Clasping the hands proved that the hand was empty and the shaking motion was meant to dislodge any weapons hidden up the sleeve.

Ancient Hand Shake, Hand Shake gesture
Image source: Wikimedia, Image credit: Pixabay

We shake hands when we meet someone. Seems simple right? But why did this gesture originate? What compelled people to grasp their hands and shake it while meeting each other?

The story behind the origin of the handshake lies in ancient ruins. Archaeologists have discovered texts and paintings, dated as far back as 5th century BC, that depicted the gesture of shaking hands. There were many paintings that depicted soldiers shaking hands. This led experts to believe that maybe this was a strategy for people to check if the person they were meeting carried weapons. Since weapons were most commonly held at the right hand, it became a polite custom to shake via the right hand only. This was used as a gesture of peace to demonstrate that no weapons were brought to the meeting. Moreover, the shaking the hands during a handshake came from the possibility that even though there were no weapons in the hand, there might be some hidden up the sleeves! The shaking during a handshake would help to reveal that. (source)


5 The fist bump comes from pro boxers in the 1800s from people began imitating how they touched gloves, as a way of greeting, before a match.

President Barack Obama fist-bumps Make-a-Wish child Diego Diaz
Image credit: Pete Souza/Wikimedia

The fist bump is similar to a handshake and it’s safe to say that it is an evolved version of the handshake. If you have observed closely, the fist bump is very popular in sports, especially sports with gloves. In cricket, it is a common sight to see batsmen giving a fist bump to each other after scoring great runs. It is used as a celebratory gesture in sports.

This will make more sense once we learn the origin of the fist bump. The first fist bumps can be traced back as far as the late 1800s and the early 1900s to the special handshakes that boxers used to greet each other. Boxers were unable to shake hands as their hands were gloved. So, they just resorted to bumping their fists as a way of greeting. And voilà, the fist bump gesture was born.

Like always, other theories also exist when it comes to its origin. LaMont Hamilton, a Smithsonian researcher, believes that the gesture might have developed during the Vietnam war as a modified version of the  Black Power salute which was banned by the military.

In September 1990, Australia witnessed its first fist bump when two opening batsmen, Mick Tyler and Bob Minney, fist-bumped when the first over was completed. They continued to do so throughout the game, and this activity continued into the future. The act also made its way to other sports in Australia and eventually other countries. (source)

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