Do you bite your thumb at me?

by Karen Jeynes

“How do you say ‘where are the rocket boosters’ on Superman’s home planet?” my son asked.

I shrugged*. He nodded reluctantly, raised both hands slightly in a “what can you do?” kind of a way, and zoomed off.

Only one sentence spoken, but a whole conversation. If a word is a unit of meaning, then how many words do we have that aren’t spoken at all? Thumbs up, a palm tilted from side to side in a so-so kind of way, a high five, a handshake, an A-OK sign, a middle finger, a peace sign – even those of us who don’t speak sign language have developed a repertoire of hand gestures to convey ideas and thoughts to others. And, like words, some of them have interesting “etymologies” of their own.


The Fist Bump

Some gestures get their moment in the sun, and for the fist bump it was 2008, when Barack Obama chose to bump fists with practically every American he could reach, including his wife. The fist bump is widely agreed to have started life on sport fields, as a quick easy way of congratulating someone whilst running off to erm, you know, touch down or whatever it is sport people do. A fist bump is easy to do even in gloves, and involves less sharing of sweat and potential to damage each other’s fingers. It’s considered a descendant of the high five, itself descended from the handshake.

The Middle Finger

It’s a gesture as old as language, crossing many cultural boundaries. The Romans called it digitus impudicus, the impudent finger. It’s a phallic gesture, the finger representing the penis and the knuckles the testicles. The French, perhaps optimistically, take this gesture further by extending an entire arm and gripping its elbow with the other hand, the bras d’honneur. And in England, well, two fingers are frequently raised – two penises? Despite what you may have heard, there’s no truth in any anecdotes about archers having their fingers cut off in battle, and their enemies displaying their “bow fingers” in a gloating and frankly ungentlemanly fashion. It’s far more basic than that.

Flicking Your Neck

This is a Russian gesture, with a curious legend attached to it. Allegedly, during the time of Peter the Great, a craftsman who pleased him was given a letter which entitled him to a lifetime of free drinks. When he lost the letter (WHO WOULD LOSE THAT LETTER?) the Czar had him branded on the side of the neck, and he would tap the brand whenever he wanted a drink. A flick on the neck in Russia simply means “would you like a drink?”

A great many other gestures change meaning in different cultures. That A-OK sign of finger and thumb forming a circle, for example, which is common in the US, is not so A-OK in Brazil. Holding up your palm in a “stop, enough!” kind of way in Greece is very rude indeed. And in Bulgaria nodding means no and shaking your head means yes – you’re likely to need a gesture translator too.

And of course, some gestures can have multiple different meanings within a single culture. A shrug might mean “I can’t be arsed” or “I don’t know” or “I’m too shy to speak”. Or it might be a sympathy shrug in response to a shrug you’ve just received. A wink might mean “well hello there” or “I have dust in my eye” or “I just tricked you and you don’t realised it”. And of course, a nod is as good as a wink to a blind horse.

So the next time you’re learning a new language, or travelling to a new place, find a phrasebook that includes arm and hand gestures. But failing that, if you desperately need to insult someone, just remember that a raised middle finger truly speaks a universal language.


*For all I know that IS how you say “where are the rocket boosters?” on Krypton.

Karen Jeynes

About Karen Jeynes

Karen Jeynes (@karenjeynes) is a playwright, dramaturg, wordsmith, proponent of the Oxford comma, and collector of words. She has been known to rub her hands with girlish glee on discovering a new one. She experiences high levels of angst over misplaced apostrophes, sometimes having to have a bit of a lie down. She is perilously partial to puns. And also alliteration.


16 Comments to “Do you bite your thumb at me?”

  1. I am a sympathy shrugger. I feel so much better that I am not alone in this!

  2. *thumbs up*

  3. Brilliant! I always love your writing, you have such a gift. Every article is a treat. And yes – who WOULD lose that letter?!

  4. Truly this site is my best! Exploding fist bump to you!

  5. You are superb. High fives!

  6. I really loved this! I’ve never thought through how instinctive some of these are. You’re awesome.

  7. Fascinating – particularly how some signals are different in different cultures. Best I keep my hands in my pockets! Thanks Karen!

  8. Cracking article Karen, thanks for it!

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