the language of gesture

George Thompson george.thompson at NYU.EDU
Fri May 20 03:35:19 UTC 2011

        A black Rogue who says his name is John, and nothing else, was yesterday afternoon observed with a box of Tea under his arm; being in the neighborhood of the Five Points he excited the suspicion of an officer, but the fellow knowing the person of the Law's attache, and seeing that he was coming towards him, placed his finger to his nose in the style of that neighborhood and started off on a run, saying -- "Mr. Officer you can't come to Tea.  He scaled six or seven fences in his flight, and arriving at the corner of Chatham and Pearl sts., thought himself safe, when to his amazement he found himself and Tea in the clutch of McGrath, the 6th ward officer.
        Evening Star, January 28, 1837, p. 2, col. 2

My impression had been, that in the 19th C the gesture of touching the side of one's nose with an index finger signified "I'm thinking" or, better, maybe, "I'm know more than you think I do".  In typing out this item, though, I recalled that this alleged perp was using the gesture in the same sense as St Nicholas, who, you will recall, laid his finger beside his nose just before up the chimney he rose.
So it also meant "Dio." (1)

(1) As in a joke in the New-York Evening Post, August 22, 1812, p. 3, col. 2: "the wag who stole away from the company he was in, leaving a paper marked Dio, that is, "Damme, I am off.""


George A. Thompson
Author of A Documentary History of "The African Theatre", Northwestern Univ. Pr., 1998, but nothing much since then.

The American Dialect Society -

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