"O. K." sign
thompsng at ELMER4.BOBST.NYU.EDU
Fri Nov 3 16:10:04 UTC 2000
Douglaw Wilson wrote: "This is an interesting topic. Can someone
direct me to a Web-site giving a large list of gestures? Or to a
Betty J. Bauml & Franz H. Bauml, Dictionary of Worldwide Gestures.
2nd ed., Lanham, Md & London, Scarecrow Pr., 1997. This says (P.
141, under "Finger: Approval") "Tip of thumb and index joined as
'A-OK' sign. Obscene. Greece; Turkey; Malta; N. Sardinia. Morris
et al, p. 114. Threatening, Tunisia. Ibid, p. 115. Rude.
Paraguay. Axtell, Gestures, p. 213. [Morris, et al. = Desmond
Morris, Gestures, Their Origins and Distribution, 1979. Axtell has
been cited by someone already.]
I don't think I see the actual "A-OK" gesture described here, though
it's hard to be sure. They quote Quintillian and later writers
describing the gesture of thumb and forefinger joined at the tip, the
other fingers relaxed, as signifying approval. I might describe this
as the natural hand position when tweaking one's moustache. In the
A-OK gesture the outer fingers are extended and the palm presented to
the person addressed. So the A-OK gesture is a dialectal variation
of an old gesture, folk-etymologized (by me, at least) as having
originated with the work "OK", the thumb and forefinger making the
"O" and the three outer fingers making the three strokes of the "K".
It seems to me that Quintillian's gesture is common in the US, but
less emphatic than the OK gesture.
You all ought to read the chapers in Rabelais' Gargantua and
Pantagruel which are written in gestures: Book II (Pantagruel), ch.
19, How Panurge overcame the Englishman who argued in gestures; and
Book III (Le Tiers Livre), How Goat-nose (Nazdecabre) answered
Panurge in gestures. They are hilarious. I assume some learned
Frenchman has written a study that explicates the gestures in these
The great folklorist Archer Taylor wrote a book called "The
Shanghai Gesture", on the history of the nose-thumbing gesture.
(Folklore Fellows Communication #166, 1956.) (I take some quiet
pride in the thought that I am probably the only kid on my block to
have read both this and Charles Darwin's "Formation of Vegetable
Mould through the Action of Worms".) As I recall, Taylor concludes
that the Shanghai Gesture is a parody of the military salute, and
originated in fairly recent times. Indeed, my father, (US Army,
WWI) when in his cups, would frequently give a salute, exclaiming as
he did so "you mustn't turn your head", and turn his head to the
right while holding his hand still, which converted the salute into
the nose-thumbing gesture.
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