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10 Common Hand Gestures and Their Origins

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)

6. Horn sign, the popular rock concert gesture, was originally a superstitious gesture used as a charm to ward off evil. It was Ronnie James Dio who made it popular in heavy metal music after learning the sign from his Italian grandmother.

Audience showing horn sign gesture in rock band concert, Horn Sign Gesture
Image credits: Pixabay, Pixabay

If you have ever been to a rock concert or you are just a rock music fan, then the horn sign, made by raising the index finger and the pinkie while other fingers are folded, must be very familiar to you. Well, much before it was used to symbolize rock music, the horn sign was used to ward off the ever-seeing evil eye.

It was only in 1979, when Ronnie James Dio became the lead singer for Black Sabbath, that the horn sign made its way to rock metal music. Before Ronnie, Ozzy Osbourne was the lead singer for the band, and his signature hand gesture, the double peace sign, had become a ritual among his fans. So, when Ronnie took the stage, he decided to introduce a new sign. He borrowed the horn sign that his Italian grandmother used as a means to ward off evil. He felt that the pagan association of the sign would fit perfectly with the band’s ideology.

Black Sabbath was not the first band to use the horn sign, but surely it was the band which made it popular. The gesture was used by the band Coven in 1969, which was a group that derived inspiration from counter-culture figures like Anton LaVey, a renowned Satanist, who used the horn sign to represent the Devil.(source)


7. The first confirmed “high five” was between LA Dodger teammates Dusty Baker and Glenn Burke. After Baker hit his 30th home run of the season, Burke met him with his hand held high over his head and Baker smacked it, later saying “It seemed like the thing to do.”

Baseball Players High Five, High Five Gesture
Image credits: MissChatter/Flickr, Pixabay

Who would have thought that something as simple as the high five would need to be invented? It seems like this is something that people should have been doing for a long time. But that’s not the case. Like everything, the high five has an origin and it was on 2nd October 1977.

Dusty Baker of the LA Dodgers completed his 30th home run on this day at Dodger Stadium. This made the Dodgers the first team in history to have four players with at least 30 home runs each. Glenn Burke, another team member, was waiting on deck, and he raised his hand high above head to greet his friend Baker. Baker, unaware of how to react to this unusual greeting, smacked Burke’s raised hand. “His hand was up in the air, and he was arching way back,” says Baker. “So I reached up and hit his hand. It seemed like the thing to do.”

From that day on, Burke and Baker high-fived their way through many games. What many people didn’t know at that time was that Burke was gay. He came out to the world about his sexual preference only after he retired in 1980. In 1982, he came out openly to the public in an Inside Sports magazine piece called “The Double Life of a Gay Dodger.”  The writer, who was a gay activist, then used the high-five gesture as an obstinate symbol of gay pride.

That is not the only tale of origin that has been told regarding the high-five. During a basketball practice at the University of Louisville, Wiley Brown gave a low five to his teammate Derek Smith. Smith didn’t accept it and instead said, “No. Up high.” He believed that since they jump so high on the court, why resort to just a low-five?

In another version of the origin, Lamont Sleets claimed that his father served in Vietnam in the 1st Battalion and his unit was nicknamed “The Five.” Their signature was the high-five gesture, and Sleets claimed that this is where the high-five came from. But this story turned out to be a hoax.(source)

8. The salute originated in medieval France when knights greeted each other by raising their visors. In the military as well, troops had to remove their headgear in the presence of superiors. This act of raising or removing headgear devolved to just touching the headgear and offering a salutation, hence the salute.

Personnel from the Royal Air Force, the British Army and the Royal Navy saluting
Image credit: Photo: Sgt Andy Malthouse ABIPP/MOD/Wikimedia

As the name suggests, the salute has its origins in the military. According to many military manuals, it originated in France. There, the knights used to wear a visor, the headgear made of steel that was part of the armor, and they would lift up their visors to pleasantly greet each other in a saluting motion.

There is another explanation regarding the origin of the salute. According to the US Army Quartermaster School, it is a custom in the military that in the presence of superiors, the subordinates are required to remove their headgear. A soldier would remove his headgear as a salute to his superiors. But when the headgear became too cumbersome in the 18th and 19th century, soldiers just resorted to the simple gesture of touching or holding their visor as a courteous salutation. Over time, this gesture evolved into the modern-day salute that we know today.(source)


9. The origin of the thumbs-up sign can be dated back to ancient Rome when, during gladiatorial combats, the spectators would use the thumbs-up sign when they wanted the gladiator to be put to death.

Gadiator looking up to the audience for their verdict on whether to kill him or bestow mercy upon him, Thumbs Up Gesture
Image credits: Jean-Léon Gérôme/Wikimedia, Pixabay

The thumbs-up sign is used commonly to give approval. For example, if you like a post on Facebook, you give it a thumbs-up. This gesture has actually gone on to become a metaphor in English literature. For example, saying “He gave me a thumbs-up on my performance” means that the person approved your performance, and he liked it.

There are many instances that depict the origin of the thumbs-up gesture. One goes back to as far as ancient Rome. As early as 110 BCE, gladiatorial combats were quite common in Rome. Once a gladiator was defeated, the winning gladiator would look up to the audience for their verdict on whether to kill him or bestow mercy upon him. The crowd would reply with gestures known as pollice verso. A thumbs-up by crowd indicated that the defeated gladiator should be spared, and a thumbs-down meant that he should be killed.

But according to a classical studies professor, Anthony Corbeill, it was actually the thumbs-up sign that signaled killing the defeated gladiator, while a closed fist with the thumb wrapped around signaled sparing him.(source)

10. Crossing fingers for good luck came from the pre-Christian era when two people would form a cross using their index fingers while making a wish. Eventually, it evolved into crossing two fingers of the same hand.

Votive hand ( 3rd century AD ) with crossed fingers, Man with Crossed Fingers, Crossed Fingers Gesture
Image credits: Wolfgang Sauber/Wikimedia, Pixabay, Emoji One/Wikimedia

Do you often cross your fingers while wishing for good luck? Do you often tell your friends to keep their fingers crossed while awaiting some important news? Then, my friend, you are taking part in an ancient ritual!

Yes, crossing fingers is an ancient custom prevalent in the pre-Christian era. The only difference between today’s gesture and the ancient one is that earlier two people were required to perform the ritual. Two people would intersect their index fingers with one being the wisher and the other being a supporter and a believer in your wish. The concept originated from the pagan belief that the intersection of a cross is the dwelling place of many good spirits. People believed that making a wish on a cross would enable the wish to be worked on by the good spirits until it was fulfilled. Also, wishes made in such a way had better chances of getting fulfilled as the good spirits would keep evil away.

As time went by, the requirements of this custom eased, and people could now wish by just crossing their own fingers without the aid of another person. The custom has become informal and secular in modern times. Today, it has evolved from two people crossing their index fingers to people crossing their own fingers, and finally to people just saying they are keeping their fingers crossed without actually doing the act.(source)


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