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Hand Gestures

December 22, 2014

We English are unique when it comes to the two-fingered salute. In most other countries ‘flipping the bird’, as they say in the US, or raising the middle finger to someone is deeply insulting. In the case of our double-digit version, the reference is historical.

Over the centuries the English and the French have enjoyed something of a love-hate relationship. Without much love and quite a lot of war. Back in the days when English archers were the best in the world, battles could be won quite easily by English longbows with their superior range and accuracy. As a result, those dastardly Frenchies would cut off the index and middle fingers – the ‘bowfingers – of any Englishmen they captured before releasing them. The intended effect was that not only would the archer no longer be able to operate his bow, but also he sent back a stumpy message to his countrymen.

So when the English lined up to face the French before a big fixture like Agincourt for example, they would raise their bowfingers in the general direction of their adversaries as if to say, “See these? I’m going to shoot you with them old bean!”

Now I’m a great believer in the ‘if you don’t know what something means, don’t say/do it’ philosophy.

So let me give you a lesson in non-verbal communication, language and history, that you might be able to be offensive without being ignorant at the same time. There’s no need to thank me, it’ll be my pleasure.

middle finderThe Middle Finger

What you are doing here is basically offering someone a penis. The extended finger is the phallus and the accompanying, curled up fingers are the testicles. The gesture is thought to have originated in ancient Greece, become popular with the Romans and hung around ever since.

In recent years, the gesture’s prevalence in popular culture has somewhat diluted its impact to the extent where its true meaning is beginning to become lost.

The French have the bras d’honneur  [arm of honour] which is basically the same thing on a bigger scale. The gesture involves raising the forearm to vertical whilst using the other arm to grip the bicep. Whatever the French for ‘you are a massive cock’ is, it means that. Nowadays, its use is not restricted exclusively to our Gallic cousins.

the moutzaThe Moutza

This is a complicated one. The Moutza is thought to be the oldest rude hand gesture still in use, but unless you grew up in Greece, parts of Africa or Pakistan, you probably will never have heard of it. The gesture itself is made by displaying the palm of your hand, with fingers and thumb spread out at arm’s length. Its meaning comes from Byzantium where criminals were paraded through the streets, facing backwards on a donkey. The townsfolk would then rub dirt, faeces and ash (from where the practice gets its name) in the face of the miscreant.

An even ruder version is made by making the gesture with both hands, slapping one on top of the other and the closer you get to your target, the more insulting it becomes.

With the single hand, it has been suggested that the five fingers suggest the five sexual acts you will partake of with the victim’s willing sister.

st'arxidia mouSt’arxidia mou (Pronounced star-hee-dee-ya moo)

The literal translation of this from the Greek, (yes they’re a bit rude aren’t they) means ‘to my testicles’. When you combine it with a double-armed gesture to indicate which part of your anatomy your testicles might be located, it means that you care so little about what is being said to you that the other person can, “write it on my bollocks”. In other words, I don’t give a monkey’s.

the cornaCorna

If you’re a heavy rock fan on holiday in Latvia, Estonia or Lithuania, DON’T go around making the rock sign with your index and little fingers raised. Yes, to you unwashed bunch of devil-worshipping grease monkeys it is a symbol of devil’s horns and your ability to endure unnecessarily long guitar solos, but…

In the Baltic states and other parts of the world it is a symbol, made to a man, that means ‘your wife is unfaithful’. And don’t go saying, “Well it was our symbol first,” because it pre-dates the electric guitar by about 2,500 years.

fivefathersFive Fathers

Take the tip of your left hand index finger between all four fingers and the thumb on your right hand.

Don’t do this in Arab countries or in the Caribbean. Well, not unless you want to call someone’s mother a whore and suggest they came from five fathers.

biting thumbBiting One’s Thumb

It might be a bit lame in the west these days, but it was the gesture that kicked it off between the Montagues and Capulets in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. It was used on British TV as recently as the 1980s when Rene used it behind the back of two German Officers in Allo Allo.

But use it in India or Pakistan and you will insult someone and their entire family.

Now – I’m off to the Foreign & Commonwealth Office…

I’m handing in my CV for the post of Cultural Attaché.


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