The Origin of ‘Talk to the Hand’

The gesture for ‘shut up’ took off the 1990s.

Talk to the--you know.
Talk to the--you know. / Sergio Mendoza Hochmann/Moment via Getty Images

If you lived through the 1990s, especially as a teenager, you’re probably familiar with slang terms like chillax, jiggy, and the mathematically offensive 110 percent. If you knew your idioms and wanted to let someone know you didn’t want to hear what they were saying, you might have raised your palm toward them and suggested that they talk to the hand. If you were particularly irate, you could inform them to talk to the hand because the face don’t understand.

It’s an obnoxious but catchy dismissal of a person you have no interest in speaking with. So who deserves the credit—or blame—for making it part of our lexicon?

The answer appears to lie in 1990s sitcoms.

Did Martin invent the phrase talk to the hand?

One of the earliest public uses of the term was on Martin, the 1992–1997 Fox series starring comedian Martin Lawrence as Martin Payne, a Detroit disc jockey juggling his personal and professional life. In 2022, Ebony credited the show with popularizing the phrase, along with you go girl and you so crazy. Lawrence’s co-star, Tisha Campbell, also recalled the series using the term in a 2023 television interview with Fox 5 in New York.

“When we started seeing people do it on the street, we were like, ‘Somebody’s gonna get their hand cut off,’” she said. “That’s just not real life stuff you should be doing.”

Whether Martin was reflecting pop culture or whether pop culture was reflecting Martin is hard to interpret. Both the Oxford English Dictionary and Green’s Dictionary of Slang date the term to 1995, when it was recorded as part of linguist Connie Eble’s collection of campus slang solicited from students at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Considering the popularity of Martin among young adults, it’s likely it moved from television to college conversations, or vice versa.

Was there a precursor? Possibly. Green’s also notes that talk to the engineer, not the oily rag, or talk to the butcher, not the block were in use in the 1920s to imply that one should be dealing with a supervisor, not a subordinate. The rhythm is somewhat the same but the meaning is different. Talk to the hand means not to talk at all, while talk to the engineer means to direct your grievances to the proper party.

In either case, talk to the hand became a shorthand gesture that found a home on the televised talk shows of the decade. In Joshua Gamson’s 1998 analysis of the shows, Freaks Talk Back: Tabloid Talk Shows and Sexual Nonconformity, Gamson quotes a producer in a 1995 interview discussing the irreverent behavior of their guests:

“I mean, no guest on the show has ever been told, ‘Put your hand in the other guest’s face and hold it right in front of their face and look away,’ which is a common motion now among the talk shows. It’s called ‘talk to the hand,’ which is short for, ‘talk to the hand because the face don’t understand.’ It didn’t start on talk shows, it started somewhere in the street, somewhere in urban life.”

A Pop Culture Phenomenon

Martin and the daytime talk shows weren’t the only television series to put the term in rotation. The Nanny (1993–1999), starring Fran Drescher as a New Yorker who agrees to be a live-in babysitter to a British producer’s brood, also made use of the phrase. Drescher later used it in her 1997 movie Beautician and the Beast. And at least two songs (1995’s “Talk to the Hand” by Buttergirl and 1996’s “Talk to the Hand” by The Loomers) adopted the idiom.

This pervasiveness lent itself to variations on a theme, which could change depending on region. Among them:

Talk to the hand, ‘cause the hand don’t talk back

Talk to the finger, ‘cause you ain’t worth five

Talk to the hand, ‘cause the face ain’t listenin’

Talk to the elbow, ‘cause you ain’t worth the extension

Talk to the left, ‘cause you ain’t right

It took a long time for popular culture to grow tired of such facetious exasperation. The phrase showed up in films like 1999’s Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me and in 2003’s Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, where the T-800 tries to blend into society by using the now-weathered expression.

Could it make a comeback? Possibly, if Drescher’s long-gestating Nanny musical or reboot gets off the ground.

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