THE THUMBS UP GESTURE
We can see evidence of this gesture in such images as the 1617 painting by Spanish artist Diego Velázquez titled,The Lunch, though what the gesture meant precisely in this case is open to interpretation.
As for a speculative theory that is a little more concrete, one of the more convincing theories of the origin of the modern meaning of thumbs up comes from Desmond Morris’ 1979 work, Gestures: Their Origins and Distribution. He states that it derives from a custom prevalent in medieval times where people making a deal would lick their thumbs and press them up against one another, rather like shaking hands today. It’s theorised that over time this diluted to the act of simply sticking one’s non-licked thumb into the air to symbolise approval.
Whatever the case, at the least, we do know how the meaning was so widely popularised. For this one, we need to fast-forward to much more recently in history- WWII. During WWII, the thumbs up gesture was used extensively by American pilots as a shorthand way of indicating to their ground crews that they were ready to fly.
It has been speculated that they got this from the Chinese, with specifically the Flying Tiger brigade of American pilots based in China seemingly being the first (or among the first) to popularly use the gesture, at least as far as photographic evidence from the era seems to indicate. To the Chinese at this time, the thumbs up gesture meant “number one” or “nice job” depending on context. (Why this is the case is up for debate.) Whether it truly was adopted from the Chinese or some other source, the American pilot version initially meant “I’m ready” or “good to go”.
From here, things become much clearer. This “ready” meaning soon evolved into a simple, all-encompassing way to indicate that everything was okay in situations where verbal cues weren’t possible or advisable. It was also picked up by the rest of the American military who proceeded to make extensive use of the gesture during their many campaigns across Europe; in the process, it was picked up by the locals and soldiers from other militaries.
From there, the thumbs up symbol temporarily declined somewhat in popularity by the 1960s, but made a huge comeback thanks to Hollywood, and particularly Fonzie and his two thumbs up “aaaaaaaaay” gesture in Happy Days which debuted in 1974.
Today, thanks to the widespread use of thumbs up meaning “like” or “good” and thumbs down meaning the opposite on numerous popular websites and apps, this meaning of the hand gesture is likely not going anywhere for the foreseeable future.
- As we alluded to in the body of this piece, there are several places on Earth where a thumbs up is considered a grave insult. For example, in places like Iraq and Greece, sticking up your thumb is akin to saying “shove it up your a**”. It also meant this in Australia before WWII, but afterward switched to the modern meaning thanks to the dissemination of the gesture throughout the Allied military. The exact reasoning behind this meaning, as with many gestures, isn’t clear, but it’s believed to be representative of the action that would be required for you to act out the insult itself. In fact, in some of these cultures that interpret it this way, an up and down movement often accompanies the gesture to make the meaning perfectly clear.
- When American troops first started being stationed in Iraq, some reported being greeted by civilians offering a thumbs up, with the soldiers (and many in the media) interpreting it as most Westerners would, all the while not realising the obscene connotations it has in that country.