When Did Shaking Hands Become a Standard Way of Greeting Someone?

Prostock-Studio/iStock via Getty Images
Prostock-Studio/iStock via Getty Images

Shaking hands seems like a gesture that has been around forever. Indeed, a throne base from the reign of ancient Assyria's Shalmaneser III in the 9th century BCE clearly shows two figures clasping hands. The Iliad, usually dated to the 8th century BCE, mentions that two characters “clasped each other's hands and pledged their faith.” Centuries later, Shakespeare wrote in As You Like It that two characters “shook hands and swore brothers.” It might seem like shaking hands is an ancient custom, the roots of which are lost to the sands of time.

Except.

Historians who have pored over old etiquette books have noticed that handshaking in the modern sense of a greeting doesn’t appear until the mid-19th century, when it was considered a slightly improper gesture that should only be used with friends [PDF]. But if Shakespeare was writing about shaking hands a few hundred years earlier, what happened?

Defining the Handshake

French Renaissance writer and satirist Francois Rabelais, (c.1494 - 1553), circa 1530. An engraving by Hinchliff after Mariette.
French Renaissance writer and satirist Francois Rabelais, circa 1530. An engraving by Hinchliff after Mariette.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

According to author Torbjörn Lundmark in his Tales of Hi and Bye: Greeting and Parting Rituals Around the World, the problem comes in differing definitions of the handshake. The early handshakes mentioned above were part of making deals or burying the hatchet; Shalmaneser III’s throne base references him honoring a treaty with the Babylonian king during a revolt. In the Iliad, Diomedes and Glaucus shook hands when they realized they were “guest-friends,” and Diomedes proclaimed “Let’s not try to kill each other.” Shakespeare was similarly referencing settlement of a conflict.

The modern handshake as a form of greeting is harder to trace. Traditionally, the origins are often given to the Quakers. But as Dutch sociologist Herman Roodenburg—the chief authority for the history of handshaking—wrote in a chapter of an anthology called A Cultural History of Gesture, “More than in any other field, that of the study of gesture is one in which the historian has to make the most of only a few clues” [PDF].

One of the earliest clues he cites is a 16th-century German translation of the French writer Rabelais’s Gargantua and Pantagruel. When one character meets Gargantua, Rabelais writes (in one modern English translation), “he was greeted with a thousand caresses, a thousand embraces, a thousand good-days.” But according to Roodenburg, the 16th-century German translation adds references to shaking hands. Roodenburg argues that if the translator adapted Rabelais to his audience, that’s an indication for an early handshaking tradition.

There's additional evidence for a handshaking tradition in that era: In 1607 the author James Cleland (believed to have been a Scotsman living in England) proclaimed that instead of things like bowing down to everyone’s shoes and kissing hands, he’d rather “retaine our good olde Scottish shaking of the two right hands togither at meeting with an vncouered head" [PDF].

Handshaking—Back to the Future

A popular hypothesis suggests that Cleland’s statements against bowing were actually a wish to go back to a potentially very traditional (though poorly recorded) method of greeting in Europe. As the centuries progressed, handshaking was replaced by more ‘hierarchical’ ways of greeting—like bowing. According to Roodenburg, handshaking survived in a few niches, like in Dutch towns where they’d use the gesture to reconcile after disagreements. Around the same time, the Quakers—who valued equality—also made use of the handshake. Then, as the hierarchies of the continent weakened, the handshake re-emerged as a standard greeting among equals—the way it remains today.

Not everyone fell in love with the handshake, however. According to an article from December 1884, “the usage has found its way into other nations, but so contrary is it to their instinct, that, in France, for example, a society has been recently formed to abolish ‘le shake-hands’ as a vulgar English innovation.”

As for why shaking hands was deemed a good method of greeting, rather than some other gesture, the most popular explanation is that it incapacitates the right hand, making it useless for weapon holding. In the 19th century it was argued that shaking hands without removing gloves was quite rude and required an immediate apology. One 1870 text explains that this “idea would also seem to be an occult remnant of the old notion that the glove might conceal a weapon.”

Sadly, in a world where obscure Rabelais translations provide critical evidence, the true reason may remain forever elusive.

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The ChopBox Smart Cutting Board Has a Food Scale, Timer, and Knife Sharper Built Right Into It

ChopBox
ChopBox

When it comes to furnishing your kitchen with all of the appliances necessary to cook night in and night out, you’ll probably find yourself running out of counter space in a hurry. The ChopBox, which is available on Indiegogo and dubs itself “The World’s First Smart Cutting Board,” looks to fix that by cramming a bunch of kitchen necessities right into one cutting board.

In addition to giving you a knife-resistant bamboo surface to slice and dice on, the ChopBox features a built-in digital scale that weighs up to 6.6 pounds of food, a nine-hour kitchen timer, and two knife sharpeners. It also sports a groove on its surface to catch any liquid runoff that may be produced by the food and has a second pull-out cutting board that doubles as a serving tray.

There’s a 254nm UVC light featured on the board, which the company says “is guaranteed to kill 99.99% of germs and bacteria" after a minute of exposure. If you’re more of a traditionalist when it comes to cleanliness, the ChopBox is completely waterproof (but not dishwasher-safe) so you can wash and scrub to your heart’s content without worry. 

According to the company, a single one-hour charge will give you 30 days of battery life, and can be recharged through a Micro USB port.

The ChopBox reached its $10,000 crowdfunding goal just 10 minutes after launching its campaign, but you can still contribute at different tiers. Once it’s officially released, the ChopBox will retail for $200, but you can get one for $100 if you pledge now. You can purchase the ChopBox on Indiegogo here.

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Why Are Common Graves Called Potter’s Fields?

Graves in potter's fields are sometimes marked with blank headstones or crosses.
Graves in potter's fields are sometimes marked with blank headstones or crosses.
vyasphoto/iStock via Getty Images

For centuries, regions around the world have maintained common graves called potter’s fields, where they bury unidentified victims and impoverished citizens who couldn’t afford their own cemetery plots. The term potter’s field has been around for just as long.

The earliest known reference to a potter’s field is from the Gospel of Matthew, which historians believe was written sometime during the 1st century. In it, a remorseful Judas gives the 30 silver coins he was paid for betraying Jesus back to the high priests, who use it to purchase a “potter’s field” where they can bury foreigners. It’s been speculated that the priests chose land from a potter either because it had already been stripped of clay and couldn’t be used for farming, or because its existing holes and ditches made it a particularly good place for graves. But Matthew doesn’t go into detail, and as the Grammarphobia Blog points out, there’s no evidence to prove that the original potter’s field was ever actually used for its clay resources—it could’ve just been a parcel of land owned by a potter.

Whatever the case, the term eventually caught on as English-language versions of the Bible made their way across the globe. In 1382, John Wycliffe translated it from Latin to Middle English, using the phrase “a feeld of a potter,” and William Tyndale’s 1526 Greek-to-English translation of the passage featured “a potters felde,” which was altered slightly to “potters field” in King James’s 1611 edition.

Around the same time, a new definition of potter was gaining popularity that had nothing to do with pottery—in the 16th century, people began using the word as a synonym for tramp or vagrant. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, it was first written in a 1525 Robin Hood tale, and William Wordsworth mentioned it in his 1798 poem “The Female Vagrant.” It’s likely that this sense of the word helped reinforce the idea that a potter’s field was intended for the graves of the unknown.

It’s also definitely not the only phrase we’ve borrowed from the Bible. From at your wit’s end to a fly in the ointment, here are 18 everyday expressions with holy origins.

[h/t Grammarphobia Blog]