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However, there are no reliable historical references to thumbs going either up or down in the Colosseum.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.


Worksheet81.18 KB

Language level

Average: 4.5 (26 votes)
Do you need to improve your English listening skills?
Join thousands of learners from around the world who are improving their English listening skills with our online courses.
Profile picture for user OlaIELTS

Submitted by OlaIELTS on Mon, 25/05/2020 - 19:33

Yes. There are others.

Submitted by Ariadnamartin on Fri, 24/04/2020 - 12:19

I found this audio very interesting and useful. Is fun to discover where our habits come from, and the habit of shaking hands in a way to say hello and goodbye, and to raise our thumbs when we agree with something is very interesting and surprising to know that this habits and gestures have remained in the history thousands of years. Also, I have discovered some new words that I didn't knew, and as I listened to the audio I realised that I understood it without having to read the transcript, so next time, I will only listen to it without reading.

Submitted by Anna_Harutyunyan on Sun, 09/06/2019 - 14:29

Hi, what does the phrase "pardon the pun" mean?
Profile picture for user Kirk Moore

Submitted by Kirk Moore on Sun, 09/06/2019 - 18:50

In reply to by Anna_Harutyunyan


Hello Anna

A pun is a phrase or word that has more than one meaning. The pun the speaker refers to here is 'I'd touch on some of (the hand gestures)'. The idea is that if you touch something, you use your hand to do it. Since the topic is hand gestures, there is a double meaning here.

Does that make sense?

All the best


The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Andrea2023 on Thu, 27/04/2023 - 19:03

In reply to by Anna_Harutyunyan


He is playing with the words, so it means "excuse me for the joke"

Submitted by VyacheslavKr on Wed, 15/05/2019 - 10:14

Thank you for the lesson. This is exactly for my level of English.