Day 776: Of Fingers And Knuckles And Such

originally published February 14, 2014

Faced with the prospect of a sixth trip to the dentist in two months for the same misbehaving molar, I find myself begrudgingly short on optimism for today. Rather than delve through another tale of a corrupt world or criminal conspiracy (both of which usually keep me perpetually entertained), I’m going to turn my curiosity toward the world around me.

There are so many miniscule aspects of our trivial routines whose histories and origins are overlooked because deep down, we simply don’t care. Throughout this project I have learned more than I’d ever wanted to know about the history of swear words, about polypropylene chairs and about German artist collectives. My life is endlessly richer for it.

Rather than comb the obscure I’m going to investigate a bit of the history behind some of the hand gestures we take for granted. Why do I do this? Does the public really need to know? Will Day 776 go down in this project’s history (or really any history) as anything but just another day? Should I stop asking rhetorical questions and twirl my word-fork through the pasta of this subject?

The first nationally exhibited high-five in history (though it had no doubt gone through years of laboratory testing before reaching this level of exposure) occurred on October 2, 1977 between Glenn Burke and Dusty Baker of the Los Angeles Dodgers. Baker had just blasted his thirtieth home run of the year over the fence, marking the first time in baseball history that a single team saw four players notch at least 30 homers apiece in a single season. Glenn Burke, who was next to bat, was waiting with his hand raised when Dusty jogged home. Dusty, being of a quick wit and a clever mind, smacked the open hand with his, changing the course of greetings history.

The high-five went on to become a mainstay in sports, eventually working its way into urban culture. What you may not know is that the high-five also became a common greeting within gay culture in the late 70’s. Glenn Burke was one of pro sports’ first openly gay athletes, and when he retired to San Francisco, he used it often with the other homosexual folks in the Castro district as a Pride-ful ‘what’s up’.

Watch for the high-five to be banned in Russia now…

Calm down, this is not an olde-timey classroom of Nazi American youth. These kids are performing something called the Bellamy Salute. It was named for Francis Bellamy, a well-known American socialist and the guy who first scribbled down the words to the Pledge of Allegiance. The salute was first demonstrated in 1892, as part of Bellamy’s instructions for reciting the Pledge. James B. Upham, a junior editor of The Youth’s Companion, came up with the move, facing the American flag and testing out Bellamy’s words with a gesture he felt came naturally to him.

As with any great idea, the fascists had to show up and ruin everything. When the Italian and German governments began using a similar wave in the 1920’s and 30’s, there was talk about switching it up in the USA. After the Nazis declared war in December of 1941, Congress got together and amended the Flag Code, depicting the hand-over-heart move to be the proper display of solemnity and reverence during the Pledge of Allegiance.

The fist bump found its relevance among 1940’s-era biker gangs. Two bikers shaking hands at a stoplight was not always a feasible action (nor does it look nearly as cool), so the fist bump became the abridged alternative. Baseball player Stan Musial is credited (at least by Stan Musial fans) as bringing the bump into the mainstream. He was apparently concerned about the number of colds he’d been catching, so he opted for the fist bump to keep the germs away.

Actually, it makes more sense to look at the history of professional boxing as a good origin for this gesture, as it’s the only way boxers can show sportsmanship before a fight with those big goofy gloves on. When President and Mrs. Obama exchanged a fist bump during a 2008 campaign speech, Fox News host E.D. Hill speculated whether the act was “a fist bump? A pound? A terrorist fist jab?”. Hill’s contract with Fox was not renewed later that year.

Here’s an example of how misunderstanding a gesture can get you into some serious cultural sludgewater. The Fig Sign, known in Brazil as “figas”, means you wish someone good fortune. Over in Kenya this refers to the number five; in the American manual alphabet, it’s the letter T. In Japan it used to mean sex. In certain cultures – Turkey, Romania, Greece – the move is mildly offensive.

The Italian term for this hand gesture is “far le fiche,” or literally “cunt gesture”. It’s not used very commonly today, but if someone’s chariot cuts you off in Roman Empire-era traffic, this might be your first response. I believe the thumb in this instance is supposed to represent either the tip of the penis or possibly the clitoris.

If you’ve just grabbed at a child’s face it refers to the nose you have pretended to grab from them. So Italians who play “got your nose” are in effect giving the cunt gesture to a small child in the process, after having torn imaginary genitals from the kid’s face. Nice.

The Hook ‘Em Horns, also known as the “Fuck-Yeah-Ozzy!” signal, can be traced back to the University of Minnesota in the 1930’s. The University of Texas made it their official hand gesture in the 50’s, as it conveniently represents the school’s Longhorns, while at the same time one-upping (in UT eyes anyway) the “gig ‘em” thumbs-up sign being used by their rivals over at Texas A&M. Of course while metal-heads and college sports fans use the gesture as a cheer additive, other cultures take a somewhat darker view.

In Mediterranean cultures it’s the sign of the horns, a harbinger of the evil eye. In places like Argentina, Colombia, Greece, Portugal and Spain, it translates roughly to “I’m doing your wife”. Either way, not a friendly gesture.

While Ronnie James Dio gets credit for popularizing the gesture within the hard rock subculture, it had already been circulating in the music scene. George Clinton and his supersonic funk machine known as Parliament had been using the horns since the early 70’s. Gene Simmons incorporated it into his KISS shtick in 1977. The cartoon John Lennon even raises the horns over Paul McCartney’s head on the front cover of the Beatles’ Yellow Submarine soundtrack. Naturally this was taken as a sign by the regular troupe of nutjobs and pranksters that Paul had died a couple years earlier.

Terrific, now I am chock-full of meaningless trivia with which I can amuse my dental hygienist this afternoon. The day is not a total loss.

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