"O. K." sign

Dennis R. Preston preston at PILOT.MSU.EDU
Thu Nov 2 18:33:51 UTC 2000

I'm not at home so I can't give any gesture references, but I have just
descended one floor and consulted a large number of Chinese native
speaker-gesturers. The results are as follows:

All Taiwanese repsondents said the sign means "OK." They also believe it is
borrowed from AmerEng.

All mainland Chinese repsondents said it meant nothing. When I then pressed
them for similar gestures which might have obscene (or sexual) meanings,
they all still said "no." When I specifically asked them if it meant the
same thing as "giving the finger" (which they all knew), they emphatially
said "no" (and they copvered quite a few areas of mainland China).

Please don't write in with the suspicion that they were being too polite.

dInIs (lucky to have respondents so close by)

PS: So far as I know, the sexual meaning referred to is pretty common all
over Latin America (and is not a "variant" of the "figa").

>>I'm presuming that whomever is offended at the 3-ring/OK sign is
>>offended because that gesture is the equivalent, in their culture, of
>>the raised middle finger in much of 'U.S. culture'.
>>Several years ago, one of my students from an Asian country asked why a
>>beer commercial ended with the guy, in the ad, making the (OK) sign
>>after taking a sip of beer.  He had thought that U.S. TV was
>>conservative, and was surprised to see such a gesture in one of our TV
>This is an interesting topic. Can someone direct me to a Web-site giving a
>large list of gestures? Or to a book?
>I have heard of the gesture with the thumb between the forefinger and
>middle finger of the closed fist -- isn't this the one called "the fig"?
>I've also heard of the 'OK' sign being an equivalent obscene gesture
>somewhere. Somebody once told me that a two-finger salute (forefinger +
>middle finger) like a reversed 'peace sign' or 'victory sign' is used in
>Britain like the single upraised middle finger is in the US and elsewhere.
>And what about the finger pulling down the lower eyelid? Or the (forefinger
>+ little finger) salute? Or the finger to the side of the nose? I can't say
>exactly what these mean right now.
>I note that during my misspent youth in the US I sometimes encountered the
>'OK' sign with the hand turned upside-down, as if one were presenting a
>cylindrical object end-on; this was used with an obvious obscene sense
>between males, but usually humorously, sometimes accompanied by some remark
>(I found "Speak into the microphone, please" rather amusing).
>In London about 10 years ago, a kind UK native filled me in on some current
>British culture, including the 'OK' sign formed very close to the forehead
>or temple to mean "dickhead" -- apparently used in traffic particularly.
>-- Doug Wilson

Dennis R. Preston
Department of Linguistics and Languages
Michigan State University
East Lansing MI 48824-1027 USA
preston at pilot.msu.edu
Office: (517)353-0740
Fax: (517)432-2736

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