Thumb signal

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A Buddhist monk giving the common thumb sign of approval Beijing bouddhist monk 2009 IMG 1486.JPG
A Buddhist monk giving the common thumb sign of approval

A thumb signal, usually described as a thumbs-up or thumbs-down, is a common hand gesture achieved by a closed fist held with the thumb extended upward or downward in approval or disapproval, respectively. These gestures have become metaphors in English: "The audience gave the movie the thumbs-up" means that the audience approved of the movie, regardless of whether the gesture was actually made.



Natural human behaviour

While the exact source of the thumb gesture is obscure, a number of origins have been proposed. Carleton S. Coon, having observed Barbary apes in Gibraltar using the gesture, hypothesised in the anthropological classic The Story of Man that it is a mutual celebration of having opposable thumbs. [1] Critics[ who? ] have suggested, however, that the apes may be simply imitating humans.

Ancient Rome

Pollice Verso (1872) by Jean-Leon Gerome is one of the sources of the "thumbs down" gesture in modern popular culture, but is not based on historical data from Ancient Rome. Jean-Leon Gerome Pollice Verso.jpg
Pollice Verso (1872) by Jean-Léon Gérôme is one of the sources of the "thumbs down" gesture in modern popular culture, but is not based on historical data from Ancient Rome.

The Latin phrase pollice verso is used in the context of gladiatorial combat for a hand gesture used by Ancient Roman crowds to pass judgment on a defeated gladiator.

Now they give shows of their own. Thumbs up! Thumbs down! And the killers, spare or slay, and then go back to concessions for private privies.

Juvenal, Against the City of Rome (c. 110–127 A.D.)

While it is clear that the thumb was involved, the precise type of gesture described by the phrase pollice verso and its meaning are unclear in the historical and literary record. [2] [3] [4] According to Anthony Corbeill, a classical studies professor who extensively researched the practice, thumbs up signalled killing the gladiator while "a closed fist with a wraparound thumb" meant sparing him. [5] [6] In modern popular culture, necessarily without a historical basis from Ancient Rome, it is presumed that "thumbs down" was the signal that a defeated gladiator should be condemned to death; "thumbs up", that he should be spared.

Middle Ages

It has been suggested that 'thumbs up' was a signal from English archers preparing for battle that all is well with their bow and they are ready to fight. Before use, the fistmele (or the "brace height") was checked, that being the distance between the string and the bow on an English longbow. This fistmele should be about 7 inches (18 cm), which is about the same as a fist with thumb extended. The term fistmele is a Saxon word that refers to that measurement. [7]

Desmond Morris in Gestures: Their Origins and Distribution traces the practice back to a medieval custom used to seal business transactions. Over time, the mere sight of an upraised thumb came to symbolize harmony and kind feelings.[ clarification needed ] For an example in the seventeenth century see the Diego Velázquez painting The Lunch .

20th century

A lorry driver giving a thumb sign in Britain, 1940 People at work in Wartime- Everyday Life in Wartime Britain, 1940 D1039.jpg
A lorry driver giving a thumb sign in Britain, 1940

The Oxford English Dictionary cites the earliest written instance of "thumbs-up" (with a positive meaning) as being from Over the Top, a 1917 book written by Arthur Guy Empey. Empey was an American who served in the British armed forces during World War I. He wrote: "Thumbs up, Tommy’s expression which means ‘everything is fine with me'."[ citation needed ] A visual example of the British use of "thumbs up" having a positive meaning (or, "okay") from the 1920s can be seen 19 minutes into the British-made silent 1927 film The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog, where the younger man examines some paper money for the older man and declares it "good" (not counterfeit) with a "thumbs up" using both hands. [8]

Popularization in the United States is generally attributed to the practices of World War II pilots, who used the thumbs up to communicate with ground crews prior to take-off. This custom may have originated with the China-based Flying Tigers, who were among the first American flyers involved in World War II. The appreciative Chinese would say ting hao de (挺好的) meaning "very good", and gesture with a thumbs up, which in Chinese means "you're number one".[ citation needed ] High officials in the Chinese government see it as a sign of respect.[ citation needed ] Any person from China will recognize this numerical gesture, and it can be seen in movies and photos of the era, though this has not been verified in print by American Volunteer Group (AVG) pilots.[ citation needed ]

During World War II, pilots on US aircraft carriers adopted the thumbs up gesture to alert the deck crew that they were ready to go and that the wheel chocks could be removed. On modern US carriers, certain deck crew hold a thumb up to signal to the pilot and control tower that their station is OK for take-off. American GIs are reputed to have picked up on the thumb gesture and spread it throughout Europe as they marched toward Berlin. [5] According to Luís da Câmara Cascudo, Brazilians adopted the thumbs up from watching American pilots based in northern Brazil during World War II. [9]

21st century

Senator John McCain of Arizona, when he cast the deciding vote that derailed a Republican repeal of the Affordable Care Act ("Obamacare") on July 28, 2017, used the thumbs down gesture. [10]

International usage

A Somali man giving two thumbs up (with both hands) Young Somali man 2.jpg
A Somali man giving two thumbs up (with both hands)

The thumbs up signal has a generally positive connotation in English-speaking countries. However, its perceived meaning varies significantly from culture to culture. [11]

The sign is said to have a pejorative meaning in countries including Iraq [5] and Iran.[ citation needed ]

In Germany, France, and Hungary, the gesture can simply indicate the number one, in the right context.

The thumbs up gesture is used on the logo of Thums Up, a popular brand of cola from India. Starting in 2007, the thumbs-up also appeared on India's one-rupee coin. [12]

In the United States, American Sign Language users use a single thumb up tilted slightly and rapidly left and right to indicate the number ten (10). [13] When held stationary and thrust toward another person the meaning is "yourself". [14] When lifted up by the other palm, the meaning is "help". [15] The handshape is employed in the production of numerous signs in American Sign Language beyond those mentioned here.

On the Internet, and most particularly on the social media site Facebook, the thumbs up gesture is shown as an icon and is associated with the term "like"—which within that context means to follow or subscribe to the page, posts, or profile of another individual or company; and on YouTube, individual videos may be voted on positively or negatively by clicking the thumbs-up or thumbs-down icons respectively (which in some previous versions of the site, used to be accompanied by "Like" and "Dislike" labels, and are still referred as such nowadays), and in the case of a thumbs-up, the video gets added to the user's "Liked videos" playlist. See Like button.

Context-specific usage

A typical hitchhiker's thumb gesture Hitchhiker's gesture.jpg
A typical hitchhiker's thumb gesture
A thumb up on Facebook, meaning "like" Boton Me gusta.svg
A thumb up on Facebook, meaning "like"

More recently, these gestures are associated with film reviews, having been popularized by critics Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert [16] on their televised review show Siskel & Ebert ; the thumb up meaning a positive opinion of a film; the thumb down meaning a negative one. The trademarked phrase "two thumbs up", originally meaning a positive review from both reviewers, has come to be used as an indication of very high quality or unanimity of praise.

A thumb down sign of disapproval Font Awesome 5 regular thumbs-down.svg
A thumb down sign of disapproval

By extension from the film review usage, [17] many websites (including Facebook) allow users to approve or disapprove of items, such as comments in a forum, products in a store, or even other people's reviews of movies, books, products, etc., by choosing to click either a thumbs-up or thumbs-down button. In the aggregate, this serves as an evaluation system. Other users may then see the total number of thumbs up and thumbs down given to an item, or may simply see the number which is produced by subtracting thumbs down from thumbs up. In the latter case, an item which has received exactly ten of each would read as having a rating of zero, rather than one of +10/-10. Often, users may view a list of items in order of popularity, as ranked by this metric.

Hitchhikers in the West traditionally use a thumb gesture to solicit rides from oncoming vehicles, although in this presentation the arm is generally outstretched with the palm and closed fingers facing the motorist. The gesture is usually performed with the hand nearest the motorist and points down the road, indicating the hopeful destination. A hitchhiker may wave the hand, emphasizing the directional meaning. This is similar to the "thumb towards the door" gesture, for "get out of here!" [18]

In scuba diving, the thumbs-up gesture is a specific diving signal given underwater, in which the diver indicates that he or she is about to stop his or her dive and ascend. This occasionally causes confusion in new divers, who might automatically gesture thumbs-up when trying to indicate approval—actually indicating a desire to stop diving and to ascend. The diving signal for approval is the A-ok sign. [19]

In basketball, when a held ball occurs, an official will jerk both thumbs in the air, signalling that a jump ball is in order.

In baseball, umpires will sometimes jerk a thumbs-up over their shoulder as an "out" signal

Amusement park rides such as roller coasters are usually cleared for departure using a thumbs-up signal from the workers after inspection that all safety precautions have been taken.

The Indian cola brand Thums Up, now owned by The Coca-Cola Company, is named after this symbol and uses it as its logo.

Texas A&M University uses a thumbs-up as their Gig 'em hand signal, as it represents the action of gigging. The gesture and corresponding slogan "Gig 'em, Aggies!" were popularized in the early 20th century, becoming the first hand sign of the Southwest Conference. [20]


Unicode code points related to thumb signals include:

Other encodings

Many keyboard emoticons utilize the shapes of lowercase "b" and "d" to represent a thumbs-up sign. Simple versions incorporate a dash for the wrist: -b (right hand) and d- (left hand). Many Japanese kaomoji icons place the thumbs beside a face constructed from punctuation marks, such as d(^^)b or b(~_^)d. [21] Various instant messaging services use (y) and (n) as a shortcut for thumbs up and thumbs down emoji. [22] [23]

See also

Related Research Articles

American Sign Language Sign language used predominately in the United States

American Sign Language (ASL) is a natural language that serves as the predominant sign language of Deaf communities in the United States and most of Anglophone Canada. Besides North America, dialects of ASL and ASL-based creoles are used in many countries around the world, including much of West Africa and parts of Southeast Asia. ASL is also widely learned as a second language, serving as a lingua franca. ASL is most closely related to French Sign Language (LSF). It has been proposed that ASL is a creole language of LSF, although ASL shows features atypical of creole languages, such as agglutinative morphology.

Emoticon Pictorial representation of a facial expression using punctuation marks, numbers and letters

An emoticon, short for "emotion icon", also known simply as an emote, is a pictorial representation of a facial expression using characters—usually punctuation marks, numbers, and letters—to express a person's feelings, mood or reaction, or as a time-saving method. Early emoticons were the precursors to modern emojis, which are ever-developing predominantly on iOS and Android devices. The first ASCII emoticons, :-) and :-(, were written by Scott Fahlman in 1982, but emoticons actually originated on the PLATO IV computer system in 1972.

Sutton SignWriting, or simply, SignWriting, is a system of writing sign languages. It is highly featural and visually iconic, both in the shapes of the characters, which are abstract pictures of the hands, face, and body, and in their spatial arrangement on the page, which does not follow a sequential order like the letters that make up written English words. It was developed in 1974 by Valerie Sutton, a dancer who had, two years earlier, developed DanceWriting. Some newer standardized forms are known as the International Sign Writing Alphabet (ISWA).

In functional-cognitive linguistics, as well as in semiotics, iconicity is the conceived similarity or analogy between the form of a sign and its meaning, as opposed to arbitrariness.

Diver communications Methods used by underwater divers to communicate

Diver communications are the methods used by divers to communicate with each other or with surface members of the dive team. In professional diving, communication is usually between a single working diver and the diving supervisor at the surface control point. This is considered important both for managing the diving work, and as a safety measure for monitoring the condition of the diver. The traditional method of communication was by line signals, but this has been superseded by voice communication, and line signals are now used in emergencies when voice communications have failed. Surface supplied divers often carry a closed circuit video camera on the helmet which allows the surface team to see what the diver is doing and to be involved in inspection tasks. This can also be used to transmit hand signals to the surface if voice communications fails. Underwater slates may be used to write text messages which can be shown to other divers, and there are some dive computers which allow a limited number of pre-programmed text messages to be sent through-water to other divers or surface personnel with compatible equipment.

Shaka sign

The shaka sign, sometimes known as "hang loose", is a gesture of friendly intent often associated with Hawaii and surf culture. It consists of extending the thumb and smallest finger while holding the three middle fingers curled, and gesturing in salutation while presenting the front or back of the hand; the hand may be rotated back and forth for emphasis. While the shaka sign has spread internationally from its Hawaiian cultural roots to surf culture and beyond, the hand gesture also bears a variety of meaning in different contexts and regions of the world.

Manual communication

Manual communication systems use articulation of the hands to mediate a message between persons. Being expressed manually, they are received visually and sometimes tactually. When it is the primary form of communication, it may be enhanced by body language and facial expressions.

Chinese number gestures Hand gestures for numbers 1-10 used by Chinese speakers

Chinese number gestures are a method to signify the natural numbers one through ten using one hand. This method may have been developed to bridge the many varieties of Chinese—for example, the numbers 4 and 10 are hard to distinguish in some dialects. Some suggest that it was also used by business people during bargaining when they wish for more privacy in a public place. These gestures are fully integrated into Chinese Sign Language.

OK gesture Hand gesture

The OK gesture or OK sign or ring gesture is performed by connecting the thumb and index into a circle, and holding the other fingers straight or relaxed away from the palm. Commonly used by divers, it signifies "I am OK" or "Are you OK?" when underwater. In most English-speaking countries it denotes approval, agreement, and that all is well or "okay". In other contexts or cultures, similar gestures may have different meanings or connotations including those that are negative, offensive, financial, numerical, devotional, political, or purely linguistic.

Sign of the horns Hand gesture

The sign of the horns is a hand gesture with a variety of meanings and uses in various cultures. It is formed by extending the index and little fingers while holding the middle and ring fingers down with the thumb.

Pollice verso Thumb gesture used in the context of gladiatorial combat

Pollice verso or verso pollice is a Latin phrase, meaning "with a turned thumb", that is used in the context of gladiatorial combat. It refers to a hand gesture or thumb signal used by Ancient Roman crowds to pass judgment on a defeated gladiator.

A taunt is a battle cry, sarcastic remark, gesture, or insult intended to demoralize the recipient, or to anger them and encourage reactionary behaviors without thinking. Taunting can exist as a form of social competition to gain control of the target's cultural capital. In sociological theory, the control of the three social capitals is used to produce an advantage in the social hierarchy as to enforce one's own position in relation to others. Taunting is committed by either directly, or indirectly encouraging others to taunt the target. The target may give a response in kind to maintain status, as in fighting words and trash-talk.

American Sign Language (ASL), the sign language used by the deaf community throughout most of North America, has a rich vocabulary of terms, which include profanity. Within deaf culture, there is a distinction drawn between signs used to curse versus signs that are used to describe sexual acts. In usage, signs to describe detailed sexual behavior are highly taboo due to their graphic nature. As for the signs themselves, some signs do overlap, but they may also vary according to usage. For example, the sign for "shit" when used to curse is different from the sign for "shit" when used to describe the bodily function or the fecal matter.

The grammar of American Sign Language (ASL) is the best studied of any sign language, though research is still in its infancy, dating back only to William Stokoe in the 1960s.

Loser (hand gesture) Hand gesture used as a taunt

The loser is a hand gesture made by extending the right thumb and index fingers, leaving the other fingers closed to create the letter L, interpreted as "loser", and generally given as a demeaning sign. Sometimes this is accompanied by raising the hand to the giver's forehead, and sometimes it is done when resting the head in one's own hands.

<i>Pollice Verso</i> (Gérôme) 1872 painting by Jean-Léon Gérôme

Pollice Verso is an 1872 painting by French artist Jean-Léon Gérôme, featuring the eponymous Roman gesture directed to the winning gladiator.

Occupy movement hand signals

The Occupy movement hand signals are a group of hand signals used by Occupy Wall Street protesters to negotiate a consensus. The signals have been equated with other hand languages used by soldiers, cliques, or even Wall Street traders. Hand signals are used instead of conventional audible signals, like applause, shouts, or booing, because they do not interrupt the speaker using the human microphone, a system where the front of the crowd repeats the speaker so that the content can be heard at the back of the crowd. Between sharing of information on Facebook, Twitter, and other news reports, the hand signals have become common at other Occupy movement protest locations. Some protesters go to neighboring groups to assist in teaching the hand signals along with other general cooperation. There are YouTube videos showing the hand signals, though the signals are not universal at all locations.


Pointing is a gesture specifying a direction from a person's body, usually indicating a location, person, event, thing or idea. It typically is formed by extending the arm, hand, and index finger, although it may be functionally similar to other hand gestures. Types of pointing may be subdivided according to the intention of the person, as well as by the linguistic function it serves.

Hand gestures are used in regions of Italy and in the Italian language as a form of nonverbal communication and expression. The gestures within the Italian lexicon are dominated by movements of the hands and fingers, but may also include movements of facial features such as eyebrows and the mouth. Theories persist as to the exact origin of hand gestures as a method of communication in Italy, however it is likely that they emerged through necessity as a universal, non-verbal method of communicating across different regional Italian dialects. Despite the majority of today’s Italian population speaking standardised Italian, hand gestures have persisted as a method of expression to accompany verbal speech in many regions of Italy, particularly in the Southern regions.


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