A Brief History of 6 Useful Hand Gestures

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By Scott Ganz

1. The V sign

Two fingers, two signs, two very different meanings. Making the v sign with the back of the hand has been a profane gesture in England for more than a century. It means, essentially, “up yours.” But during World War II, the gesture—and the meaning—got flipped around. The change started with a Belgian politician named Victor de Laveleye, who fled to England after the Nazis occupied his homeland. While living in exile, de Laveleye directed radio broadcasts for the BBC and suggested that listeners in occupied Europe use the letter V as a symbol of resistance. (In French, V stands for victoire, “victory,” and in Dutch, it stands for vrijheid, “freedom.”) De Laveleye hoped that seeing the V all across the continent would demoralize the Nazis. The British press ran with the idea, and soon, it became popular for people in Allied Europe to form the letter V with their fingers, palms turned out. In time, the V became a general sign of encouragement, and later, peace.

2. The Bird

The middle finger has been around for centuries, popping up whenever someone needed an easy way to express displeasure with his fellow man. How did it start? Flipping “the bird” actually goes back to ancient Rome, where it was called digitus impudicus, or the indecent finger. Romans thought an extended middle finger resembled a man’s reproductive organ, which supposedly warded off the evil eye. Hence, whenever Romans were met with a malicious stare, they believed they could protect themselves from being cursed by flashing their magical hand organ. Remember, these people conquered the world.

3. You're Out

Umpires have to be good at two things: soaking up verbal abuse and calling plays. But where did they get those gestures? For years, umpires didn’t talk with their hands at all. In fact, it was considered undignified to engage in such histrionics during the gentleman’s game of baseball. However, as the sport became more popular and the crowds grew bigger and louder, it became difficult to hear the umpire’s voice. In the early days of the 20th century, retired Civil War General Andrew Sheridan Burt reportedly wrote a letter to the American League and suggested that refs use hand gestures to communicate. Eventually, the League took his suggestion, and after years of experimentation, famed umpire Bill McGowan standardized the ump’s pantomime in 1925.

4. The fist bump

The so-called “terrorist fist-jab” doesn’t come from Hezbollah. Rather, it comes from pro boxers in the 1970s, after people began imitating how they touched gloves before a match. Later, the gesture became popular among basketball players, who would bump fists with their teammates instead of shaking hands, to preserve the chalk on their palms. The gesture soon spread to all basketball lovers, and, before long, to the President of the United States.

5. Thumbs up, thumbs down

You may have heard that when a Roman gladiator lost, the crowd would give a thumbs-up if they wanted him spared or a thumbs-down if they wanted him killed. But that’s all wrong.

In truth, thumbs pointing in any direction meant one thing: Kill him! Back then, the digit represented stabbing someone with a sword. If the crowd wanted a gladiator to live, they didn’t flash any hand signs at all.

Why the mix-up? Centuries later, the French and the English both developed more positive thumb signs. For instance, when British businessmen wanted to seal a deal, they would often stick up their thumbs, wet them, and press them together. Also, when the French counted on their hands, they usually started with the thumb, so the thumbs-up came to symbolize that something was No. 1, or first-class. Once the thumbs-up became a sign of a good thing, Europeans rewrote Roman history in their own image.

Coincidentally, the Chinese also give the thumbs-up when something is excellent. During World War II, Chinese civilians kept giving the thumbs-up to the Flying Tigers, a group of American pilots who flew with the Chinese Air Force to help defend China from Japanese bombers.

The Flying Tiger pilots spread the gesture to the rest of the U.S. military, and from there, the thumbs-up made its way to Roger Ebert and the Fonz.

6. Military salute

Saluting comes from the basic etiquette of removing your hat to show respect. British military conduct from the 18th century dictated that personnel remove their caps in the presence of superior officers. But as time marched on, military headgear became more cumbersome, particularly for Britain’s Coldstream Guards and their famous bear-fur hats. So the practice was shortened to simply tipping the hat without removing it. From there, it was simplified even further to the salute we know today.

Amazon's Under-the-Radar Coupon Page Features Deals on Home Goods, Electronics, and Groceries

Stock Catalog, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
Stock Catalog, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

Now that Prime Day is over, and with Black Friday and Cyber Monday still a few weeks away, online deals may seem harder to come by. And while it can be a hassle to scour the internet for promo codes, buy-one-get-one deals, and flash sales, Amazon actually has an extensive coupon page you might not know about that features deals to look through every day.

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To discover all the deals you have been missing out on, head over to the Amazon Coupons page.

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7 People Killed by Musical Instruments

On occasion, a piano has been a literal instrument of death.
On occasion, a piano has been a literal instrument of death.
Pixabay, Pexels // Public Domain

We’re used to taking it figuratively. One “slays” on guitar, is a “killer” pianist, or wants to “die” listening to a miraculous piece of music. History, though, is surprisingly rich with examples of people actually killed by musical instruments. Some were bludgeoned and some crushed; others were snuffed out by the sheer effort of performing or while an instrument was devilishly played to cover up the crime. Below are seven people who met their end thanks to a musical instrument.

1. Elizabeth Jackson // Struck with a Flute

A German flute.The Crosby Brown Collection of Musical Instruments (1889), Metropolitan Museum of Art // Public Domain

David Mills was practicing his flute the night of March 25, 1751, when he got into a heated argument with fellow servant Elizabeth Jackson. A woman “given to passion,” she threw a candlestick at Mills after he said something rude. He retaliated by striking her left temple with his flute before the porter and the footman pulled them apart. Jackson lived for another four hours, able to walk but not make sensible speech. Her fellow servants decided to bleed her, a sadly ineffective treatment for skull fractures. “Her s[k]ull was remarkably thin,” the surgeon testified at Mills’s trial.

2. Louis Vierne // Exhausted by an Organ Recital

Louis Vierne plays the organ of St.-Nicolas du Chardonnet in Paris, France.Source: gallica.bnf.fr, Bibliothèque nationale de France // Public Domain

Reputed to be the king of instruments, the organ requires a performer with an athletic endurance—more than 67-year-old Louis Vierne had to give during a recital at Notre Dame cathedral on June 2, 1937. He collapsed (likely of a heart attack) after playing the last chord of a piece. With a Gallic appreciation for tragedy, one concertgoer noted the piece “bears a title which, given the circumstance, seems like fate and takes on an oddly disturbing meaning: ‘Tombstone for a dead child’!” As Vierne’s lifeless feet fell upon the pedalboard “a low whimper was heard from the admirable instrument, which seemed to weep for its master,” the concertgoer wrote.

3. James “Jimmy the Beard” Ferrozzo // Crushed by a Piano

The exterior of the Condor Club in 1973.Michael Holley, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Getting crushed by a piano is usually the stuff of cartoons, but what happened to James Ferrozzo is somehow even stranger than a cartoon. “A nude, screaming dancer found trapped under a man’s crushed body on a trick piano pinned against a nightclub ceiling was too drunk to remember how she got there,” the AP reported the day after the 1983 incident. The dancer was a new employee at San Francisco’s Condor Club (said to be one of the first, if not the first, topless bar). The man was her boyfriend, the club’s bouncer. And the trick piano was part of topless-dancing pioneer Carol Doda’s act—a white baby grand that lowered her from the second floor. During Ferrozzo’s assignation with the dancer, the piano’s switch was somehow activated, lifting him partway to heaven before deadly contact with the ceiling sent him the rest of the way.

4. Linos // Killed with a Lyre

A student and his music teacher, holding a lyre—potentially Herakles and Linos.Petit Palais, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.5

One of the greatest music teachers of mythic Ancient Greece, Linos took on Herakles as a pupil. According to the historian Diodorus Siculus, the demi-god “was unable to appreciate what was taught him because of his sluggishness of soul,” and so after a harsh reprimand he flew into a rage and beat Linos to death with his lyre. Herakles dubiously used a sort of ancient stand-your-ground law as a defense during trial and was exonerated. Poor Linos: an honest man beaten by a lyre.

5. Sophia Rasch // Suffocated While a Piano Muffled her Screams

Pixabay, Pexels

No one better proves George Bernard Shaw’s quip that “hell is full of musical amateurs” than Susannah Koczula. “I have seen Susannah trying to play the piano several times—she could not play,” 10-year-old Carl Rasch testified at Koczula’s 1894 trial. Susannah, the Rasch’s caregiver, distracted little Carl, sister Clara, and their neighborhood friend Woolf with an impromptu performance while a gruesome scene unfolded upstairs: Koczula’s husband tied and suffocated Carl and Clara’s mother, Sophia Rasch, before making off with her jewelry. “She banged the piano,” explained Woolf. “I heard no halloaing.”

6. Marianne Kirchgessner // A Nervous Disorder Acquired Playing the Glass Armonica

According to one doctor, Ben Franklin's instrument caused "a great degree of nervous weakness."Ji-Elle, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Benjamin Franklin invented the glass harmonica, or armonica, in 1761, unleashing a deadly scourge upon the musical world. “It was forbidden in several countries by the police,” wrote music historian Karl Pohl in 1862, while Karl Leopold Röllig warned in 1787 that “It’s not just the gentle waves of air that fill the ear, but the charming vibrations and constant strain of the bowls upon the already delicate nerves of the fingers that combine to produce diseases which are terrible, maybe even fatal.” In 1808, when Marianne Kirchgessner, Europe’s premiere glass armonica virtuoso, died at the age of 39, many suspected nervousness brought on by playing the instrument.

7. Charles Ratherbee // Lung Disease Possibly Caused by Playing the Trumpet

A valve trumpet made by Elbridge G. Wright, circa 1845.Purchase, Robert Alonzo Lehman Bequest (2002), Metropolitan Museum of Art // Public Domain

One summer day in 1845, Charles Ratherbee, a trumpeter, got into a fight with Joseph Harvey, who rented space in a garden from Ratherbee and was sowing seeds where the trumpeter had planned to plant potatoes. When confronted, Harvey became upset and knocked Ratherbee to the ground with his elbow. Two weeks and five days later, Ratherbee was dead.

Harvey was arrested for Ratherbee’s death, but a doctor pinpointed another killer: An undiagnosed lung disease made worse by his musical career. “The blowing of a trumpet would decidedly increase [the disease],” the surgeon testified at Harvey’s manslaughter trial. When asked if he was “in a fit state to blow a trumpet” the surgeon replied bluntly, “No.” Harvey was acquitted and given a suspended sentence for assault. The trumpet was never charged.