Gestures: Their Origins and Distribution – Morris, Collett, Marsh, & O’Shaughnessy

(en español)

Gestures - Morris, Collett, Marsh, OShaughnessy 1979fWhen TLCThinkLiteracy suggested that I write a blog post about common gestures and their meanings in different languages, I excitedly rummaged through my gesture literature to find the most-cited book dealing with this topic.  That book is Gestures: Their origins and distribution by Desmond Morris, Peter Collett, Peter Marsh, and Marie O’Shaughnessy (1979).

Gestures - Morris, Collett, Marsh, OShaughnessy 1979b

20 Emblem Gestures

This book is primarily an anthropological analysis of emblem gestures used throughout Europe.  According to the authors, “Emblems are actions which replace speech and can act as substitutes for verbal statements” (1979, p. xx).  Illustrations of the emblem gestures they used for analysis were printed on the back cover of the book, which I have scanned here.

I am currently in the process of analyzing video data that I recorded of eight of my students as part of a research project examining what children’s nonverbal communication reveals about their developing understandings of gender concepts.  Out of 422 gestures I recorded, only 11 of them were emblems.  The most common emblem, comprising nearly half (45.5%) of the emblem gestures used by these children, was the raising of a hand to get a teacher’s attention.  Perhaps because this particular emblem would seem to be one that would tend to be restricted to classroom environments, it did not become part of Morris et. al.’s cross-cultural analysis of middle-aged European males (1979, p. xviii).

Blocks are O.K.

The only gesture which I recorded that was discussed in this text was the “thumb up” (#16 in the illustration), the primary feature of this gesture being that “the clenched hand is extended, with the thumb vertically erect” (1979, p. 186).  In my videos of Tanish (age 4 years; 4 months), I noticed that this gesture was used once by Kimberley (4;10) while she was playing with Tanish, then once a week later by Tanish himself when he was playing alone.  In both instances the child making the gesture was working on building something out of blocks, and the gesture was made just after a previously precarious block was made to balance so that it would not fall down.  The similarity between these two instances leads me to wonder whether this is a common gesture used by the children in block-building, or whether it was an example of delayed imitation on the part of Tanish.

If it is true that this gesture has become common to block-building, then the gendered implications of Kimberley’s usage of this gesture is significant.  Often teachers consider block play to be the domain primarily of boys, but we see in this instance that not only is a girl engaging in block play, but her gesture usage in such play demonstrates that this is not an isolated instance but rather that that she has internalized a gesture associated with this type of play.

It is possible that the gesture is not common to block-building, but rather that Tanish was engaging in delayed imitation of Kimberley.  Perhaps he was creating a personal association with the gesture and block-building such that he repeated the gesture even when Kimberley was not present.  In this instance, we again we see a gendered significance.  This is an example of a boy choosing to imitate the behavior of a female peer.  Another common view held by teachers is that children tend to prefer play with children of their own genders, but the fact that Tanish internalized a behavior demonstrated by a peer of a different gender indicates that his interaction with Kimberley meant more than just the single instance of block play caught on video.

The meaning of this gesture in both of these instances would seem to be consistent with the “O.K.” meaning of the gesture as identified by Morris et. al. (1979, p. 186).  This meaning is used in every area studied by the authors, though in the Greco-Italian region the usage was less common.  In Greece, Corfu, and parts of Sardinia, it is likely that the reason it is not as common with the “O.K.” meaning is because the gesture also holds an alternate meaning of an obscene insult.  The authors point out that “although both the insult meaning and the O.K. meaning are present in these countries, in southern Sardinia and northern Greece the obscene insult is dominant” (1979, pp. 195-196).  As for the rest of Sardinia, Sicily, and mainland Italy the lack of usage is probably related to the fact that “the O.K. ring [#9] is more popular in Italy” (1979, p. 195).  In mainland Italy in particular, the thumb up was considered to be more tied to American culture.  “At every location we visited on mainland Italy, at least one person identified it as ‘The American O.K.’” (1979, p. 193).

Other meanings for the thumb up gesture, which did not hold significant frequency in any region, were the number one, hitch-hike, and indication of direction (1979, p. 195).

Spiderman called you a cuckold

Though none of the other emblems discussed in the text appeared in the video data of my gesture research project, I do occasionally notice children in my classrooms making a gesture which resembles “the horn-sign” (#10 & #11), in which “the hand is [held up/pointed forward] with the forefinger and the little finger extended [vertically/horizontally].  The other two fingers are held down in a bent position by the thumb” (1979, p. 120, p. 136).  This gesture tends to occur when children are engaging in superhero play, specifically with regard to Spiderman.  In the 2002 movie starring Tobey Maguire there is a scene in which Spiderman experiments with different hand positions for shooting his webs, and one of the positions he tries is the vertical horn-sign, before finally discovering a similar hand position, in which the thumb is also extended while the hand is held palm-up horizontally.  This is the hand position typically recognized as being used by Spiderman to trigger his web-shooter.

I recall at one point overhearing a conversation between a young 4-year-old boy and his mother in which the child modeled both the thumb-extended versions of the Spiderman web-shooting gesture along with an upside-down version of the horizontal horn-sign as a thumb-retracted version of the web-shooting gesture.  He explained to his mother that girls use the thumb-extended version while boys (including himself) use the thumb-retracted version.  Personally, I’ve noticed that it tends to be younger children, regardless of gender, that use the thumb-retracted version, while older children, regardless of gender, tend to use the thumb-extended version, which requires greater fine-motor coordination.  The child, however, was projecting his own preferred method onto his same-gender peers.  In preschool classrooms, both hand formations have come to be emblematic of Spiderman.

Out of curiosity, I consulted a comic book expert known as TheDissilent, who helped me to skim through the first seventeen years of Spiderman comics (from when it began in 1962 until 1979, when Morris et. al. published Gestures) to see what hand positions Spiderman was depicted as using when shooting or attempting to shoot his webs and how frequently Spiderman was depicted as using the thumb-retracted horn-sign in such a context.  Of course, the large majority of the time he used the thumb-extended version of the gesture (61.9% of left-handed webs; 65.6% of right-handed webs).  It turns out that he positioned his hand in the true thumb-retracted horn-sign only about 3.4% of the time with the right hand and about 3.9% of the time with the left hand over the course of this period.  The highest frequency use of this form occurred in 1973, when the right hand used it 23.1% of the time and the left hand used it 25.0% of the time.

This would place Marvel Comics’ prime use of the gesture about halfway between when it was first introduced to rock music culture by the band Coven in 1968, and when Black Sabbath popularized the gesture as representative of heavy metal culture in 1979.  This use of the gesture in popular music probably stems from its meaning as a form of protection or a curse, in which the horns are acting “as symbols of power and aggression” (1979, pp. 128-129).  Prior to 1979, however, this usage as protection or curse was very minor, even in the parts of Italy, Malta, and Yugoslavia in which it was found.  Instead, Morris et. al. documented the gesture’s primary usage to be “the sign for a cuckold.  Its message is: your wife has been unfaithful to you and has given you the horns of a cuckold” (1979, p. 120).  They found that for the cuckold insult “as a commonly used gesture, we found it restricted today largely to Portugal, Spain and Italy” (1979, p. 129).

This meaning of the gesture has particularly interesting ramifications with regard to gender roles in society, and even this highly gender-biased study finds itself looking at rape culture as a major factor in this gesture’s history.  For they deduced that “we are dealing with a gesture of declining popularity” (1979, p. 129), and in seeking out the reason for this decline they found themselves examining the relative seriousness of the crimes of adultery and of rape throughout history.  At a time when the objectification of women was much more overt in society, in that women were viewed more as property of men than as individuals, adultery was a much more heinous crime than rape.  “The reason for being more lenient with the rapist was that he had only stolen the woman’s body, while the adulterous seducer had stolen both her body and her mind.  This attitude is based on the theft of the husband’s property – his wife – rather than on any consideration of the woman’s feelings” (1979, p. 131).   The authors attribute the decline in use of this meaning of the gesture to a waning view toward women as property, resulting in lower stigmatism toward adulterers and greater stigmatism toward rapists.  Unfortunately, nearly 35 years after this book was published, women are still being objectified and we continue to live in a rape culture.

There are some areas where the gesture is used as simply a general insult, not specifically associated with cuckoldry.  The authors point out that, “This is rare… but we have included a map of it because there is one site – Yugoslavia – where it becomes the dominant meaning” (1979, p. 134).  The horizontal horn-sign has one additional minor meaning not present in the vertical gesture, in which “it is also employed as a savage threat, with the meaning ‘I will poke your eyes out’” (1979, p. 143), but this meaning seems to be restricted mainly to just northern France.

This book analyzes another seventeen gestures not addressed in this blog post, and I would be happy to answer any questions readers have about the origins or distributions of other gestures depicted in the illustration.  What gestures do you find yourself or your own students using?  How has the meaning of these gestures changed over time in nearly 35 years since this book was published?  Please feel free to comment on this post with your responses or questions of your own.

Also, if you have a book that you would like to see me discuss, please comment on the new Recommended Reading page.  Next month I will be discussing Daring to dream: Toward a pedagogy of the unfinished by Paulo Freire (2007).


Freire, P. (2007). Daring to dream: Toward a pedagogy of the unfinished. Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers.

Morris, D., P. Collet, P. Marsh, & M. O’Shaughnessy. (1979). Gestures: Their origins and distribution. Briarcliff Manor, NY: Stein and Day.