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However, there are no reliable historical references to thumbs going either up or down in the Colosseum.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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Submitted by mmdiego on Wed, 05/01/2022 - 20:18


In Brazil, we tend to touch our hands with closed fists instead of squeezing and shaking them, depending on the region. It is worth highlighting that during the Covid-19 pandemic, all of us have been learning different ways to greet or touch each other, which means not connecting parts of our bodies that may transmit the virus, primarily our opened hands. Also, it is widespread for us, Brazilians, besides greeting by hands, we cuddle each other or even kiss ourselves faces, which have been highly forbidden during this time.

Submitted by Suraj paliwal on Thu, 14/10/2021 - 07:01


Most of common hand gestures are mentioned in audio. So all hand gestures I know very well

Submitted by Benjamin Kwebaza on Tue, 07/09/2021 - 11:32

In Uganda, we node the head as a gesture to disagree with somebody
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Submitted by Hennadii on Thu, 10/06/2021 - 15:29

Well, most of our hand gestures were mentioned in the record above. But we still have some unmentioned. First of all, we use pointer and little fingers up to express exciting feelings. That means we think something is really great or even better to say "cool". I like to use this gesture to describe my reaction when I'm hearing a great song, for example. Another common gesture I would like to call "trembling five" - we use it to show how our hands' trembling when we get nervous or afraid of something. Maybe before an important meeting or exam. To show this "trembling five" you just need to make your "high five" hard be parallel to the floor and imitate trembling. By the way, this "trembling five" can also be a "so-so five" and demonstrate your uncertain opinion about something. It looks the same as the "trembling" ones but with slower shivering. And of course, we have some borrowed hand gestures (mostly with indecent meanings) but I'd better not describe them )))
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Submitted by danisep on Mon, 05/04/2021 - 17:51

touching or hitting a fist is a way to say hi to a friend or making a circle with the thumb and index finger keeping open the other three fingers to say that something is good. or brandish the hand beside the ear to say that someone is a fool. I think that there are many gestures with hands to express different emotions.

Submitted by Cami on Sat, 03/10/2020 - 12:30

I live in northern Italy and apart from the gestures mentioned in this listening, we tend to use other gestures, such as, for saying ok make with the thumb and the forefinger a sort of a circle, for saying " what to do you want" in a critical way, we close one of our hand so that the top of every or quite every of our fingers touch with themselves and then we move our hand up and down, often saying in the meantime "what do you want from me?". We use the last gesture I have described in particular when somebody has accused us to have made something wrong that we haven't do. Another gesture that we make is this: we rise one of our arm about until the head maintaining all the fingers, except for the thumb, of the hand of that arm united, stopping immediately the arm when it arrives at that height. This gesture has a vulgar meaning. We use it when we are very angry with somebody or something.

Submitted by Silent guy on Sun, 13/09/2020 - 15:16

in my country there some other gestures like hugs, touching fists, weird and some complex gestures that show each other how friends they are.

Submitted by yoyoraw on Wed, 17/06/2020 - 23:29

Yes there are some other hand gestures that are widely used in my culture, but most of them are commonly known and used in most countries.

Submitted by yoyoraw on Wed, 17/06/2020 - 23:05

I do not think that we do have any different hand gestures in my culture , most of them are commonly known and used in most countries.