Thumbs up for the post that sets out to understand the origins of the signs and symbols we use on our hands, and how they might differ from country to country. Inspired by my visit to Portugal, where people wear necklaces telling you to $#% off. Or do they?
I grew up in South Africa, and if anyone ever placed their thumb between their index and middle finger, they were telling you, in no uncertain terms, what you should go do with yourself. It was even worse than the bird (which I’ll get to later). So imagine my surprise to see the figa, or fig, worn around necks, painted on walls, and hanging from walls in Portugal! It turns out that the figa is an ancient Roman symbol used for good luck, and to ward away evil spirits. It’s also, coincidentally, the letter T in American Sign Language. Yet because of its physical appearance, resembling a sexualized vagina, some countries including Indians, Italians, Turks, Russians, and certainly South Africans take it as a definitive insult. So while you may want to wish your Portuguese friends good luck with a figa ornament, you might want to make sure it’s not for those at a South African wedding.
“Hail Satan!” Or perhaps: “Rock on, Dude!” Or maybe just: “Go University of Texas!” A clenched fist with the index and fifth finger pointing skywards, you’ll see the Corna at most heavy metal and hard rock concerts, an almost universal sign to rock! Growing up, I remember a certain taboo with the sign since it definitely had some sort of Satanic connotations, appearing as it does in the Satanic Bible. However in Austin, at the University of Texas, the Corna is known as “hook-em horns”, used to cheer on the Longhorns, resembling their mascot, a longhorn steer.
The V Sign
V is for Victory! V is for peace, man! Or, if your palm is inwards, V is for something else entirely, depending on where you are, of course. In the UK, or other English speaking countries, the palm inwards is an insult not unlike the bird (which we’ll get too soon enough). Confusion was caused by Winston Churchill, who used both front and back V’s during the war before he was told of their correct and appropriate usage. Stick your nose between the fingers, and Italians will get your point too. Also, expect something to be lost in translation should a Canadian deaf person order two drinks at an English pub.
According to sources, here’s a hand sign that is particularly sensitive to culture and location. We know it as “go for it!” or “awesome!” or “hey buddy, can I grab a ride somewhere?” In the Middle East, Latin America and West Africa however, you’re basically flipping the bird (which I’ll get to I promise). We probably developed its western connotation from pilots during World War II, and surprisingly it appears there is no evidence it was used during gladiator fights in Ancient Rome. But it’s best to avoid using the thumbs up in countries like Afghanistan or Nigeria, where it is used, you guessed it, as a substitute for the middle finger.
The Five Finger Scrunch
Israelis use it for just about everything, but other cultures along the Med are familiar with it as well. Scrunch your fingers together, turn your palm upwards, and you get a hand signal that means, well, anything you want it to mean. “Wait a minute.” “Hurry up!” “Relax!” There’s an element of frustration in the gesture, but like many of the others mentioned, it manages to transcend language, communicating with fingers what words do not.
Palm down, point four fingers at a Korean, and you get a hand symbol steeped in inter-cultural warfare and hatred. The Japanese were known to use this symbol to regard their Korean enemies as “animals”. No word if Koreans responded with the forearm jerk.
The Forearm Jerk
Leaving the middle finger closed for a change, this insult simply requires the left hand on the folded right arm, and the right fist extended skywards. Slapping the hand down adds to the insult, which is perfectly understandable the world over, regardless of what language is spoken.
The Bird. The Flip Sign. The Zap. The unholy middle finger! There are various theories as to its origins, but the one I like best dates back to the 100 Year War in Europe. See, archers were quite deadly in those days, using their middle fingers to release arrows from their long bows. If captured, it was practice for the English (or French, depending on who you believe) to chop off the middle finger of the archer, unloading their weapon if you will. Archers that escaped, or just felt cocky, would raise their middle finger to taunt and insult their enemies, and today we follow their lead. There’s also a theory that it evolved form Ancient Greece, relating as it does to the phallus (much like most hand insults). Regardless of its origins, the bird is probably the most universally understood hand sign, although in some Arab and Mediterranean countries the index finger is used instead.
The Vulcan Salute
OK, this isn’t really a hand sign (for this planet anyway), but its origins are interesting enough. Palm forward, fingers split between the middle and ring fingers, thumb out. Leonard Nimoy, the late actor who played Dr. Spock (RIP), is credited as inventing the Vulcan Salute, although he actually saw it used as a boy one day in his grandfather’s synagogue. It is used by the Jewish priestly class, the Kohanim, the symbolize the Hebrew letter shin in a way that symbolizes the name of God. A good enough reason as any I should think to live long and prosper.
Please come in. Mahalo for removing your shoes.
After many years running a behemoth of a blog called Modern Gonzo, I've decided to a: publish a book or eight, and b: make my stories more digestible, relevant, and deserving of your battered attention.
Here you will find some of my adventures to over 100 countries, travel tips and advice, rantings, ravings, commentary, observations and ongoing adventures.