The history of hand gestures

The history of hand gestures

Listen to a lecture about the history of hand gestures to practise and improve your listening skills.

Do the preparation task first. Then listen to the audio and do the exercises.



Earlier on in today's lecture, I mentioned the importance of hand gestures and said that I'd touch on some of these, pardon the pun! Hand gestures are, of course, often culturally bound and can vary from group to group. But there are a few of them which, if not universal, are very common indeed around the world. I'd like to focus on the history of four gestures in particular: the salute, the thumbs up, the high five and the handshake.

The salute, a gesture most associated with the military, may have originated in the 18th century. The Grenadier Guards, one of the oldest regiments of the British Army, used helmets in the form of cones. These were held in place by chinstraps. It was difficult to raise your helmet when greeting someone, so the soldiers simply touched their head with one short movement of the hand before quickly putting it back down again at their side.

The thumbs-up gesture apparently goes back a lot further. It's widely believed that this gesture goes back to Roman times when gladiators fought in front of the emperor and eager crowds in the Colosseum. The fallen gladiator's fate was decided by the audience. If they felt he had fought well, they showed their approval with a thumbs-up gesture. The emperor would then confirm this and thereby would spare the gladiator's life. If the crowd gave a thumbs down, on the other hand, that meant execution.

However, there are no reliable historical references to thumbs going either up or down in the Colosseum. It may be that if the crowd wanted to spare the gladiator's life, then they would actually cover up their thumb and keep it hidden. They would only extend their hand and thumb if they wanted the gladiator killed. This actually makes more sense, as the emperor could much more easily see what the crowd was indicating when looking out over a huge arena.

The high-five hand gesture is almost universally used as a greeting or celebration. Many see its origins in baseball. Two US teams lay claim to inventing the high five: the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1977 or the Louisville Cardinals in 1978. It's quite likely that it was neither, and the gesture might have a much earlier origin again. It is very similar to a 1920s Jazz Age gesture known as the 'low five', or 'giving skin'. This gesture involved people slapping each other's lower hands, also in celebration. There are, in fact, numerous references to the low five in films of the era. Perhaps the high five is just an evolution of that gesture.

The final gesture I'm going to mention today is the handshake. It dates back as a greeting at least as far as Ancient Greece. In the Acropolis Museum in Athens, the base of one of the columns shows goddess Hera shaking hands with Athena, the goddess of wisdom and courage. It's thought that shaking hands, rather than bowing or curtseying, showed both parties as equals. In 17th-century marriage portraits in Europe we find many examples of handshakes between husband and wife. Now, of course, the handshake has a multitude of uses: meeting, greeting, parting, offering congratulations, expressing gratitude or completing an agreement. In sports or other competitive activities, it is also done as a sign of good sportsmanship. In this way, the gesture has not strayed from its original meaning to convey trust, respect and equality.


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Profile picture for user vsanchez75

Submitted by vsanchez75 on Wed, 04/10/2023 - 03:25


In time of pandemic, I was working in a company with strict rules, one of them were we did not have the chance handshake so we "invented" a new way to salute. We touched the feet each other when we met. It was weird but it helped to keep healthy. I was not sick in that times.

Profile picture for user Ramiro Solana

Submitted by Ramiro Solana on Wed, 09/08/2023 - 17:18


In times of pandemic, due to health indications, most of us had to replace the handshake with a small fist touch as a form of greeting or congratulation.

Profile picture for user joytriplejoy

Submitted by joytriplejoy on Fri, 14/07/2023 - 09:01


Good day Sir/Mdm. I happened to spot two errors in Task 1 above.

In Question 1, there is a missing 'their':
'...Soldiers touched (their) head quickly before returning their hand.'

In Question 4, there is a missing 'it':
'Now (it) is used for a multitude of reasons.'

Thank you for your kind attention.

Hello joytriplejoy,

Thanks very much for letting us know, and I'm very sorry about that! 

We will correct these sentences as soon as we can, though it may take some time for technical reasons. But rest assured -- we will definitely correct them.

Thanks again!

Best wishes,
LearnEnglish team

Submitted by Ehsan on Tue, 22/11/2022 - 06:21


yes, we have divers gestures such punching fists.

Submitted by khinaiko on Sat, 15/10/2022 - 14:47


curtseying spelling is wrong

Hello khinaiko,

Both 'curtsying' and 'curtseying' are acceptable spellings.



The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by jmajo on Thu, 04/08/2022 - 14:36


No there aren’t, at least not as much used as those described in the lecture.
Thanks for the lesson.
Great site!

Submitted by milagros diaz rickel on Sun, 24/07/2022 - 12:14


I´d like to share in this group, two positive gestures in my native country which are:
-Cross fingers in front of another person, that is a wish to want good luck.
-Touch heart over the chest with the right hand as a symbol of respectful salute for others,
They are just only two common gestures but there are a lot of different common gestures that would be so long to mention here.

Submitted by Aisuluu on Fri, 15/04/2022 - 07:16


Bows. Usually, this gesture or body gesture so to say, is a sign of respect and greeting among married women toward their adult relatives-in-law. When women bow to adults, grandfathers and grandmothers give their blessings.