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Hand Gestures Throughout History

The finger gesture

The finger gesture

The finger gesture

Historians believe that the distended middle finger symbolized a Phallus in ancient Greece, and was therefore originally used to present sexual threats.

The gesture’s Greek name, Katapugon – created by the words kata (downwards) and pugon (ass) – which has clear references to anal sex.

However, the hand gesture later brought on a new meaning, making the hand gesture even more insulting. The great comedian writer Aristophane’s play “the clouds” shows a student giving the finger to the philosopher Socrates. Socrates responds to the student by reproving him with the words: “You are rude and stupid!”

According to the Roman historian Tacitus, Digitus impudicus - the shameless finger – was so widely known that even the barbaric Germanic tribes north of the Alps used it when the Roman legions pressed into their country.


Watch out!!

Don’t be too eager with the “finger” everywhere you go!! In 2013 an American named Penelope Soto was sentenced to 30 days in prison for giving the finger to a judge in a Florida courtroom.




Thumbs up gesture

Thumbs up gesture

Thumbs up gesture

Contrary to popular belief, the Romans didn’t turn their thumb upwards when a gladiator could live. This conclusion was drawn by an American historian named Anthony Corbeill. He has researched the so-called Pollice verso - the turned thumb – as it was called in Latin. Conversely, a turned thumb symbolized a sword, and therefore death.

The defeated gladiator was only allowed to live if the judge pressed his thumb down towards the remaining fingers. It was not until WW1 that the thumbs up was a gesture that suggested that everything was okay.

Crossed fingers gesture

Crossed fingers gesture

Crossed fingers gesture

Scientists think that the Christian Europeans were already in the Medieval times using the crossed fingers gesture to seek Gods protection and forgiveness by imitating Jesus cross. Over time, the gesture has gotten two meanings:

In Central- and Eastern Europe, liars cross their fingers behind their back to ask God for forgiveness for their sinful actions.

In English speaking countries and Denmark people often cross their fingers for good luck. It could be before an exam or something else that you might be nervous or anxious about. People do because they hope for Gods blessing before the task that the person might be nervous about.


Watch out!!

In Vietnam, the crossed fingers symbolize the female sexual organ, and can, therefore, be very insulting.

the five fingers gesture

the five fingers gesture

Five fingers gesture

A flat hand presenting the palms with all fingers extended has been used by the Greeks since ancient times. In ancient times, the Greeks presented the palms with all fingers extended - the moutza - to send incantations towards people that they didn’t care for. In modern times the so-called moutza gesture is an insult similar to giving the finger.

Similar to big parts of the Middle East, the moutza’s five fingers imply that the person seeing the five fingers has five fathers – and is, therefore, a mongrel/crossbreed.


Fun fact!!

In America, the thumbs up gesture also means “be quiet”.

The V-gesture

The V-gesture

The V-gesture

The V-gesture was supposedly already in use during medieval times until this day! The gesture was used as a symbol for the Latin word Victoria, meaning victory. The painter Tiziano took the gesture into use when he painted the painting “Religion saved Spain”. The picture shows a Spanish woman using the V-gesture after the victory over the Ottoman Empire during the naval battle of Lepanto.¨

The gesture entered its famous era during WW2 when radio host Victor de Laveleye during a recording session in a studio, asked his Belgian compatriots to make the V-gesture in protest to the Nazi occupation. According to Victor de Laveleye, the gesture could both be a symbol of victorie (French for victory) and a symbol of vrijheid (Flemish for freedom).

Multiple radio stations later followed in the same footprints, and thanks to a massive radio campaign the victory- and peace-gesture spread across Europe in 1941. During the youth rebellion in 1968, an anti-authoritarian movement in Western Europe and the U.S.A, the V-gesture symbolized “peace”. In present times though, the gesture is mainly used as a victory symbol.


Be careful which way your fingers point!!

- In Medieval times, the French cut off the fingers of the feared English longbow soldiers after they were captured.

- The English longbow soldiers made the V-gesture towards their enemy on the battlefield to mock them.

- The French cut the three middle fingers off of the English longbow soldiers, therefore the story is believed to be a myth. The reversed V-gesture is still mockingly used today by the British.

The Shaka gesture

The Shaka gesture

The Shaka gesture

The shaka gesture is used in the surfer environment and means hang loose – meaning that you should stay cheerful. Some think that the gesture was used by whalers to express that they had caught a whale. Others credit the fisherman Hamana Kalili for inventing the gesture. Hamana Kalili (1882 – 1958) lost three of his fingers on his one hand and used the last two fingers when he was working as a security guard at freight trains. His Shaka gesture meant that the train was done being loaded and ready to continue on its route.


Watch out!!

The Shaka gesture can easily be mistaken with “call me”.

The Horn gesture

The Horn gesture

The Shaka gesture

In ancient times the Etruscan people (ca. 800-300 f.kr) painted Horn gestures on their graves in Northern Italy – to protect the diseased against demons. In present-day Italy the gesture – mano cornuto – “Horned hand” and give accounts of the devil and the female sexual organ.

No one knows for sure who brought the Horn gesture into the Heavy Metal environment. A lot points towards that it was the lead singer in the popular Heavy Metal group Black Sabbath, Ronnie James Dio, that brought the Horn gesture into the Heavy Metal environment during a concert in 1979.


Watch out!!

In Italy, mano cornuto is also used to mock men whose wife has cheated on them.

Your favourite hand gesture

Feel free to comment down below what your favorite hand gesture is. If there are some hand gestures that I haven't included in this list, feel free to comment down below so that we can all learn something new.


© 2019 Jakob Bach Jensen

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