British Council-The history of hand gestures

British Council

British Council-The history of hand gestures



Transcript of the podcast

Earlier on in today’s lecture, I mentioned the importance of hand gestures and said that I’d touch on some of these, pardon the pun! Hand gestures are, of course, often culturally bound and can vary from group to group. But there are a few of them which, if not universal, are very common indeed around the world. I’d like to focus on the history of four gestures in particular: the salute, the thumbs up, the high five and the handshake

The salute, a gesture most associated with the military, may have originated in the 18th century. The Grenadier Guards, one of the oldest regiments of the British Army, used helmets in the form of cones. These were held in place by chinstraps. It was difficult to raise your helmet when greeting someone, so the soldiers simply touched their head with one short movement of the hand before quickly putting it back down again at their side

The thumbs-up gesture apparently goes back a lot further. It’s widely believed that this gesture goes back to Roman times when gladiators fought in front of the emperor and eager crowds in the Colosseum. The fallen gladiator’s fate was decided by the audience. If they felt he had fought well, they showed their approval with a thumbs-up gesture. The emperor would then confirm this and thereby would spare the gladiator’s life. If the crowd gave a thumbs down, on the other hand, that meant execution

However, there are no reliable historical references to thumbs going either up or down in the Colosseum. It may be that if the crowd wanted to spare the gladiator’s life, then they would actually cover up their thumb and keep it hidden. They would only extend their hand and thumb if they wanted the gladiator killed. This actually makes more sense, as the emperor could much more easily see what the crowd was indicating when looking out over a huge arena

The high-five hand gesture is almost universally used as a greeting or celebration. Many see its origins in baseball. Two US teams lay claim to inventing the high five: the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1977 or the Louisville Cardinals in 1978. It’s quite likely that it was neither, and the gesture might have a much earlier origin again. It is very similar to a 1920s Jazz Age gesture known as the ‘low five’, or ‘giving skin’. This gesture involved people slapping each other’s lower hands, also in celebration. There are, in fact, numerous references to the low five in films of the era. Perhaps the high five is just an evolution of that gesture

The final gesture I’m going to mention today is the handshake. It dates back as a greeting at least as far as Ancient Greece. In the Acropolis Museum in Athens, the base of one of the columns shows goddess Hera shaking hands with Athena, the goddess of wisdom and courage. It’s thought that shaking hands, rather than bowing or curtseying, showed both parties as equals. In 17th-century marriage portraits in Europe we find many examples of handshakes between husband and wife. Now, of course, the handshake has a multitude of uses: meeting, greeting, parting, offering congratulations, expressing gratitude or completing an agreement. In sports or other competitive activities, it is also done as a sign of good sportsmanship. In this way, the gesture has not strayed from its original meaning to convey trust, respect and equality


.Complete the sentences with the words

universal / claim / raise / references / gesture / greeting

.N1. The hand gestures the professor talks about are very common, if not ………….. , around the world

N2. Because it had chinstraps, soldiers could not ………….. their helmet easily so instead they would touch their head with their hand

.N3. There are no reliable historical ………….. that crowds in Ancient Rome used a thumbs-down gesture

.N4. Two sports teams ………….. to have invented the high-five gesture

.N5. The handshake is a ………….. that dates back to Ancient Greece

.N6. Handshakes are thought to be a ………….. of trust between equals


N1. universal
N2. raise
N3. references
N4. claim
N5. greeting
N6. gesture

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