When was the last time you responded to someone’s text with a thumbs-up or clapping emoji? Or maybe you crossed your fingers while waiting to hear back about that promotion? You might not think twice about why or how these common hand gestures came to be, yet we still use them in our everyday lives. Unsurprisingly, each of them has its own unique history – and some are darker than others. Learn the meaning of ten often-used hand signs.
Let’s dial it back to the basics, starting with the good, ol’ handshake. Whether you’re greeting someone for the first time, closing a deal, or making amends, shaking hands is usually the go-to gesture. Handshakes are so important that some people often base their entire first impression of you on how firm, limp, rushed, or long yours is. But if you think about it, shaking hands is a little weird. Who decided on this customary gesture, anyway?
As it turns out, the handshake has been around for thousands of years – one of its earliest depictions in art is from the 9th century B.C., while Homer mentioned it in The Odyssey a century or two later – and there are a couple of theories about its origin, according to History.com. The first theory suggests that showing someone your empty, weapon-free palms conveys peaceful intentions, while the shaking motion would dislodge any weapons that might be hidden up a sleeve. The second theory has to do with the clasping motion when two hands meet, which symbolises good faith and a sacred bond.
The middle finger
Ah, the middle finger. As one of the most, if not the most, offensive hand gestures, it’s no surprise that its origin is also vulgar. The hand sign’s meaning is actually phallic, and it’s believed to date back to ancient times, with the Greeks using it when referencing male genitalia and the Romans calling it the “digitus impudicus,” or the “shameless finger.” Its earliest documentation in the United States was in 1886, when a pitcher for the Boston Beaneaters “flipped the bird” in a photograph with the team’s rivals, the New York Giants.