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Thumb and Thumber

By Judith Stone
Dec 1, 1996 6:00 AMNov 12, 2019 5:01 AM


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Nearly everything we think we know about the thumbs-up gesture is wrong. Do you want to tell Siskel and Ebert or shall I?

Perhaps we should leave the task to linguistic anthropologist Joel Sherzer of the University of Texas, an expert on the thumbs-up sign, and especially its sociopolitical and psychological significance in Brazil. But before he offers a quick history lesson that may turn your world, or at least your thumb, upside down, let’s define our terms: when Sherzer says thumbs-up, he means extending the arm with the hand clenched and the short first digit vertically erect. (When Lavinia Stratton [1841-1919] said Thumb’s up, she meant her husband had arisen; she was married to 40-inch- tall circus performer Charles Stratton, also known as General Tom Thumb.) Note, too, the single-digit inflation: we say thumbs-up, plural, but almost always only a single one is used.

Though the stout little appendage performs many other vital tasks--as Heloise might have hinted, That thumb you use to pull out a plum is also dandy for sucking, pressing a remote control, pantomiming a phone receiver, or calling a runner out at third!--Sherzer isn’t as enchanted by them as by the familiar gesture we think we know.

The popular notion, says Sherzer, is that the use of the thumbs-up gesture to mean ‘positive’ or ‘okay’ originated in the gladiatorial combat of ancient Rome. You’re sure you know the drill: the vanquishing warrior looms over the vanquishee and waits for crowd and emperor to turn their thumbs up and shout Mitte! (Let him go free!), or turn their thumbs down and shout Iugula! (Kill him! or, in an alternative translation, Give him bitter lettuce!). Well, you lose, Spartacus. That’s not what happened.

The misunderstanding arose, according to anthropologist Desmond Morris in his book Gestures, from the faulty translation of the Latin phrase pollice verso, used by Juvenal in a.d. 2 to describe thumb mercy. Literally, it means turned thumb--an unspecified turn, neither up nor down. Early historians took it to mean turned up.

But according to Morris, the thumb gesture indicating that a gladiator should be offered mercy or a lucrative deal endorsing Roman Meal Bread was pollice compresso, compressed thumb--that is, covered up, or tucked out of sight. What spectators in fact did was extend their thumbs for a kill and hide their thumbs for an acquittal, writes Morris. This made sense in an arena as vast as the Colosseum, where the kill and no-kill signals would have to be strongly contrasting to be visible at all.

All very interesting, I hear you cry, but what’s there to study about the thumbs-up gesture? Regardless of its origin, doesn’t everyone understand the gesture to mean okay? Yes, said 738 of the 1,200 Europeans surveyed by Morris and colleagues in a landmark study. But 40 respondents said the thumb aimed heavenward indicated the number 1, another 36 considered it a sexual insult (up, you should pardon the expression, yours), and the rest mentioned hitchhiking. Recognition of the upturned thumb as an okay sign was weakest in Italy; Italians were surprised that other folks thought the gesture had Roman origins and considered it to be something imported by American GIs in World War II.

We aren’t even going to discuss the 19 other gestures that Morris and company studied, including the fingertip kiss (denoting praise), the nose thumb (defiance), the cheek screw (she’s beautiful, or, alternatively, you’re crazy), the eyelid pull (I’m alert; be alert), the chin flick (aggressive disinterest), or the forearm jerk (a mock phallic thrusting indicating hostility). Morris barely touches on the finger jerk--rarely used in Europe but so very popular on the motorways of the U.S.A.--even though it’s the oldest recorded obscene gesture. The Romans even had a name for it, the digitus impudicus, or impudent finger. Zoologists report that apes may have obscene gestures, although no one has seen a chimp flip the bird.

Like Morris, Sherzer believes that the thumbs-up gesture (which he abbreviates as tug in the interest of saving trees) predated gladiators, Roman or American. The dichotomy of up meaning ‘positive’ and down meaning ‘negative’ pervades the language and gesture systems of Europe, he explains. The thumbs-up gesture probably originates from this contrast.

The geographic range of the tug, as well as its meanings, extends beyond the West, Sherzer points out. In Bali, for example, the thumbs-up is part of a ritual way of showing respect to someone of a higher caste, he says. It’s done slowly and with deference, bending down.

Sherzer isn’t all thumbs, of course; his field is the study of language and culture. (He teaches a class in language, culture, and society, including cross-cultural jokes. He told me some, but trust me, you had to be there. And you had to speak Navajo; many Native American jokes boil down to What do you mean we, white man?) Sherzer became interested in gestures while studying the language of the Cuna Indians of San Blas, Panama. The Cuna perform a gesture they call kaya sui sae: making a long or pointed face. They look in a direction, raise the head, open and close the lips in a quick pout, and lower the head, Sherzer says. Why the long face? For giving or asking directions, asking What’s up?, offering greetings, or gently mocking a friend. It was while lecturing on Cuna language and gesture as a visiting professor in São Paulo, Brazil, that Sherzer began to study the ubiquitous Brazilian tug. He notes that anthropological observation suggests the tug is used in Brazil with extraordinary frequency, perhaps more than anywhere else in the world.

You learn a great deal about Brazil simply by looking at the thumbs-up gesture, he says. The Brazilians want to be friendly, communicative, constantly in touch--but everyone knows how rough the streets can be. The tug can not only reconcile the urge to connect with the self-preservative need for wariness but also defuse potentially explosive situations. People use the thumbs-up in difficult moments--to stop traffic and be friendly about it, to say thank you, to answer a query, as a quick form of politesse on the run. And the way they wield a thumb, Sherzer says, reveals their social status: I’m especially interested in the way physical restraint marks the stratification of classes. The higher the class, the more restrained the gesture.

This observation applies to another gesture in which Sherzer takes an interest. You might have seen the late French president François Mitterrand do a mild, statesmanlike version in tv interviews: the barest lip-whirring expulsion of air accompanied by slightly raised eyebrows and the Gallic shrug that speaks volumes. (If you missed Mitterrand, perhaps you’ll recall the soigné cartoon skunk Pepe LePew executing the same move.) In France the gesture-plus-audio is called a bof. (Alternative spellings used by human ethologists include phew, pff, and pouah.) The demographic group that Americans call baby boomers are known in France as the bof generation for their tendency to overuse this shtick to indicate ennui, désillusionnement, cynisme, and mal de mer. Had another group of ethologists prevailed, this generation might have been called the Phew (the Proud, the Blasé).

Sherzer studied and cataloged naturally occurring examples of the bof. Here are variations on the theme:

Q.: Don’t you think you spent too much at the flea market?

A.: [Bof, with strong bilabial onset--lip action--to indicate What the heck!]

Q.: What’s your friend Gerard up to?

A.: [Bof, with long, slow exhale to indicate Who knows?]

Interestingly, the bof can be created by either exhalation or inhalation, depending on the situation--intake of air is more positive, expulsion more negative, Sherzer says. Tellingly, he can offer few examples involving intake.

A gesture can capture the essence of a culture, Sherzer says. The bof is the essence of Frenchness. Sure, there’s a gradient from polite to vulgar; the further the boffeur is from upper-class norms, the more exuberant the bof: the more flatulent the lip noise and the more flamboyant the shrug and facial expression. And yet the gestural continuum, taken as a whole, Sherzer says, helps unify the French and strengthen their national identity. (Like it needed strengthening.)

In light of Sherzer’s findings, and in the spirit of multiculturalism, perhaps Siskel and Ebert should consider expanding the gestural repertoire that’s catapulted them to fame. Wouldn’t filmmakers work a little harder to earn shocking, irreverent, one of the year’s ten best--two cheek screws!? And though Siskel and Ebert’s current gesture tugs at the heartstrings, I think it might be more fun to hear Gene, I have to disagree. You give Tutu II a fingertip kiss, but I say it’s definitely a chin flick.

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