O. K. sign

Mark A. Mandel Mark_Mandel at DRAGONSYS.COM
Fri Nov 3 16:31:37 UTC 2000

In the discussion on the American Dialect Society list about the US
popular-culture "OK" sign (thumb and forefinger making a circle, other
three fingers extended and spread),
Grant Barrett <gbarrett at MONICKELS.COM> writes:

When I was a kid, we used to do the OK sign, hand held down low close to the body,
the circle facing up, fingers splayed out. We'd hold it there until someone looked at
it, then we got to hit them. I dunno why.


When I was a graduate student in Ling. at UC Berkeley (1973-80), working in
ASL, I learned of a similar joke among the Deaf* community thereabouts. A
Deaf person would make that handshape low down, close to the body; that's
at or outside the limits of normal signing space. If the Deaf person they
were with didn't see it in a few seconds and put their own index finger
through the hole, the first person would chop them on the arm.

* Small-d "deaf" is audiological; big-D "Deaf" is cultural.

I think I learned about this through a booklet I bought from a Deaf man I
knew slightly, a photographer named John Darcy Smith. It has no text, just
a series of photographs of people, one on each page. All the people
pictured were members of the local Deaf community. On (if I recall
correctly) each right-hand page one person shows another a card; the
"reader" of the booklet cannot see what is on the front of it. Overleaf on
the next left-hand page the second person reacts variously: laughter,
taking offense, frowning, bafflement, groaning as at a bad joke, etc. Then
on the facing right-hand page, the second person ("reacter") of the
previous dyad is showing the card to someone else, so the booklet as a
whole is a chain. And of course the reader's curiosity is building and
building: what IS this card that evokes such strong and diverse reactions?

On the next-to-last page, the last reacter is looking out of the page at
the reader, inviting the reader to look at the card. The last picture shows
the card in his hand, displayed to the camera's eye: a hand in the "OK"
handshape. And the Deaf reader finally gets it: Here's the joke handshape,
but how am I supposed to put my finger through the hole?

I am going to send this message to the Sign Languages Linguistics list as
well for further reaction.

   Mark A. Mandel : Dragon Systems, a Lernout & Hauspie company
          Mark_Mandel at dragonsys.com : Senior Linguist
 320 Nevada St., Newton, MA 02460, USA : http://www.dragonsys.com

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