From pigments to printing presses, symbols have been part of human communication from the very first day of mankind’s existence.
The imperfection of speech, which undoubtedly allowed the sharing of ideas and stimulated invention, eventually resulted in the creation of new forms of communication, improving both the range at which people could express themselves and the longevity of information.
Nowadays, symbols are so common that we hardly ever wonder how they started. A symbol can tell you more about a person, a group of people, an organization, or even a religion and political ideology than a thousand words.
Most of us are perfectly aware of what certain symbols represent and in many cases a single hand gesture or salute is enough to give you a clear message.
THE SHAKA SIGN
The shaka sign, sometimes known as “hang loose,” is a gesture of friendly intent often associated with Hawaii and surf culture.
It consists of extending the thumb and smallest finger while holding the three middle fingers curled, and gesturing in salutation while presenting the front or back of the hand; the hand may be rotated back and forth for emphasis.
While the shaka sign has spread internationally from its Hawaiian cultural roots to surf culture and beyond, the hand gesture also bears a variety of meaning in different contexts and regions of the world.
According to the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, prevailing local lore credits the gesture to Hamana Kalili of Laie, who lost the three middle fingers of his right hand while working at the Kahuku Sugar Mill.
Kalili was then shifted to guarding the sugar train, and his all-clear wave of thumb and pinkie is said to have evolved into the shaka as children imitated the gesture.
Yet another theory relates the origin to visiting whalers who signaled a catch with a “tails up” shaka.
Shaka and its very positive associations may simply derive from the popular World War II “V for Victory” hand sign, in Hawaii often held up and rotated rapidly back and forth, “shaken”, hence shaka.
CHUCKING THE BIRD
In Western culture, the finger or the middle finger (as in giving someone the (middle) finger or the bird or flipping someone off) is an obscene hand gesture.
The gesture communicates moderate to extreme contempt, and is roughly equivalent in meaning to “fvck me”, “fvck you”, “shove it up your ass/arse”, “up yours” or “go fvck yourself”.
In the early 1800s, it gained increasing recognition as a sign of disrespect and was used by music artists (notably more common among actors, celebrities, athletes and politicians.
It is performed by showing the back of a hand that has only the middle finger extended upwards, though in some locales, the thumb is extended.
The middle finger gesture was used in ancient times as a symbol of se.xual intercourse, in a manner meant to degrade, intimidate and threaten the individual receiving the gesture.
Extending the finger is considered a symbol of contempt in several cultures, especially in the Western World.
The Corna sign also known as the demonstration of the sign of the horn.
The sign of the horns is a hand gesture with a variety of meanings and uses in various cultures.
It is formed by extending the index and little fingers while holding the middle and ring fingers down with the thumb.
In Hinduism, the hand gesture is known as the “Apana yogic mudra”. In Indian classical dance forms the hand gesture symbolises the Lion.
In Buddhism it is seen as an apotropaic gesture very commonly used by Gautama Buddha as “Karana Mudra” which is synonymous with expulsion of demons and removal of obstacles like sickness or negative thoughts.
It is also used traditionally to counter or ward off the “evil eye” (malocchio in Italian). In Italy specifically, the gesture is known as the corna.
Thus, for example, the President of the Italian Republic, Giovanni Leone, shocked the country when, while in Naples during an outbreak of cholera, he shook the hands of patients with one hand while with the other behind his back he superstitiously made the corna, presumably to ward off the disease or in reaction to being confronted by such misfortune.
This act was well documented by the journalists and photographers who were right behind him, a fact that had escaped President Leone’s mind in that moment.
THE HIGH FIVE
The high five is a hand gesture that occurs when two people simultaneously raise one hand each, about head-high, and push, slide, or slap the flat of their palm against the flat palm of the other person.
The gesture is often preceded verbally by a phrase like “Give me five”, “High five”, “Up high”, or “Slap hands”.
The “high five” originated from the “low five”, which has been a part of African-American culture since the 1920s.
Its meaning varies with the context of use but can include as a greeting, congratulations, or celebration.
There are many origin stories of the high five, but the two most documented candidates are Dusty Baker and Glenn Burke of the Los Angeles Dodgers professional baseball team on October 2, 1977, and Wiley Brown and Derek Smith of the Louisville Cardinals men’s college basketball team during the 1978–1979 season.
The phrase is related to the slang “give me five” which is a request for some form of handshake – variations include “slap me five”, “slip me five”, “give me (some) skin” – with “five” referring to the number of fingers on a hand.
A thumbs-up is another popular hand gesture of our times whose real meaning and origin few people know.
Depending on whether the thumb is extended up or down it is seen as a representation of approval or disapproval respectively.
Today this symbol has little connection to its origins, when it voted to save the life (or not) of a Roman gladiator.
Must of us have got his wrong. It is widely believed that the thumbs up gesture originates from the gladiatorial fights of ancient Rome, in which the destiny of a losing gladiator was decided by the crowd.
Thumbs up, he lived, thumbs down -he died. If this is what you believe – then you would be wrong, and here’s why.
Thumbs down, signified “swords down,” which meant the losing gladiator was worth more to them alive and was to be spared to fight another day.
The belief that the ‘thumbs-up’ and ‘thumbs-down’ gestures gave approval or disapproval respectively entered the public consciousness with Jean-Léon Gérôme’s 1872 painting ‘Pollice Verso’.
The ‘thumbs down’ gestures of the crowd in Gérôme’s popular picture were interpreted by the 19th century public as signs of disapproval. Actually, the artist probably never intended that, as ‘pollice verso’ just means turned thumb.