American Hand Gestures

A gesture is a movement of a part of your body. You can nod your head up and down once or twice for a “yes” signal or shake your head side to side a couple of times for a “no” signal. These are head gestures. Similarly, you can make gestures with your hands. This lesson will teach you over 20 common hand gestures.

This lesson will explain what these hand gestures mean in American culture. Gestures can also be called signals or signs. I made up (created from my own head) the names for these signals.

Here we go:

  1. The OK Signal – This means everything is good; there are no problems. I am fine or “That’s okay with me.”
  2. The Bird or the Finger – When you look at someone and make this gesture, you are “giving them the bird” or “giving them the finger”. This is a strong insult. You are telling that person “Go to Hell!” or “Screw you!” or “F— You, A–hole!” Don’t do this to a stranger. Smile when you do it to a friend. “The” is always required when writing this insult. You can NOT give someone a finger, only the finger.
  3. The Thumbs Up Signal – This means yes, okay, good, success, positive, everything is good. In ancient Roman times when two gladiators would be fighting to the death for public entertainment, and the victor was about to kill his weakened and defeated opponent (the loser), the victor would look to the Caesar. If the Caesar gave him a thumbs up, this meant “Your opponent fought bravely. Let him live. Do not kill him.”
  4. The Thumbs Down Signal – This means no, bad, failure, negative. In ancient Roman times when two gladiators would be fighting to the death for public entertainment, and the victor was about to kill his weakened and defeated opponent (the loser), the victor would look to the Caesar. If the Caesar gave him a thumbs down, this meant “Kill him.”
  5. The So-So Sign – This gesture indicates neither up nor down but approximately level, almost stable. It indicates a situation that is shaky, so-so, minimally acceptable. The Chinese say “Ma ma hu hu”. Americans say “so-so”.
  6. The Slit-Your-Throat Sign – This gesture symbolizes cutting off your head. It can indicate failure, death, or impending doom. If you are looking at someone you don’t like when you do this, you are telling them “You are doomed. You are going to die.” If you do this to a would-be executioner, you are telling him to kill his victim.
  7. The La-La-La Sign – If you cover your ears and say “la la la la la…”, you are expressing that you do NOT want to hear what the other person is saying. You are in effect saying, “I will not listen to what you want to say”.
  8. The Vampire Cross Sign – This symbol is based on the old vampire movies. Legend has it that vampires cannot stand to look at or approach a Christian cross (wood or metal is okay). The cross is anathema to a vampire; it causes him to flee (run away in fear). If you “make a cross” at someone, you are in effect saying, “Stay back, go away, you evil thing!” You are indicating that they are evil (i.e., a vampire) and you want them to stay away from you. We use this affectionately with friends to show them that they have said or done something that we hate or strongly disagree with. Ew! Yuck!
  9. The Christian Cross Sign – This is a religious gesture (Catholic I believe) that draws a Christian cross over your chest area. It means, “God, help me” or “God, protect me.” You may do in church when facing the altar or right before you are about to do something risky or dangerous. You are asking for God’s blessing or protection for what you are about to do. When you do this, you are crossing yourself.
  10. The Cross My Heart Signal – This is a type of promise made between teenagers, usually girls. When one girl is about to tell a secret to another girl, she will ask the other girl, “Do you promise not to tell?” The other girl will then say “I cross my heart and hope to die.” She may make this gesture, but her words will suffice (be good enough). This means “I promise not to tell anyone the secret that you are about to tell me. If I do tell your secret to someone else, may God strike me dead.” More simply put, it means “I swear I’ll keep your secret (tell no one else), so hurry up and tell me already! I’m dying to know your secret!”
  11. The Prayer Sign – Believers in Christianity (the Christian religion) hold their hands like this when they pray to God. This means “I pray that this comes true” or “May God help me” or “Please, God, let my wish come true” or just “Let us pray.”
  12. The Knock on Wood Gesture – Sometimes when we say that something bad could happen, Fate decides to make it happen just to spite us! We have jinxed ourselves. To prevent this, when we mention some bad thing that can happen, we knock on wood (or say “knock on wood” if there’s no wood handy). Apparently, Fate hates this sound and stays away, so the bad thing is not so likely to happen. Thus, we thwart Fate when we knock on wood.
  13. The Hand Gun Signal – We make a “gun” out of one hand by extending the first finger (index finger) outward to form the gun’s barrel and raising the thumb to indicate the gun is loaded (with bullets) and cocked (cocking lever pulled back) and ready to shoot. If we quickly lower the lever (our thumb), we “shoot” the gun. This gesture can have several meanings. If you do it towards an enemy, you are indicating you are going to kill him. It can also mean “You bet!” or “Got cha!” or “I’ll have my usual choice.” Context (friendship, a smile, the topic of conversation) determine which meaning is intended.We have had so many school shootings in schools in the USA that a student that uses this gesture during school is very likely to be expelled from school forever. Schools have taken a zero tolerance (excessively strict) attitude toward guns in school–sad but true.
  14. The Shoot-Yourself-in-the-Head Signal – This gesture uses the Hand Gun signal to shoot yourself in the temple (part of the head). It has several meanings, depending on context. It can indicate that someone committed suicide or it can indicate that someone did something very stupid, thereby causing great embarrassment to themselves, “killing their reputation” as it were.Another way to express this ’embarrassment’ meaning is “He fell on his sword (committed a faux pas).” This means that someone is so stupid and clumsy that he “fell” on his own sword and killed himself (i.e., his reputation).
  15. The Double-Shoot-Yourself-in-the-Head Signal – Same as #14 but with emphasis.
  16. The Wipe Your Forehead Sign – This indicates we are wiping sweat off our forehead. This may be the sweat from exertion (hard work) or the cold sweat of fear. We often say “Whew!” when we do this. This can mean “I’m glad that that
    harrowing ordeal (horrible experience) is over with” or “Whew! I could have died just now! That was a close call!” or it can simply mean “I’m tired.”
  17. The L Sign – If you look at someone and make this capital L sign on your forehead, you are telling them they are a Loser, a failure in life, a stupid idiot. This is an insult. Don’t do it to a stranger. It can mean that someone who is the topic of conversation is the loser.
  18. The Steepled Finger Sign – This indicates that you are in deep thought. Perhaps you are pondering the meaning of life or trying to figure out how to tell your girlfriend that you are going to break up with her.
  19. The Circling Finger Signal – This can have two meanings. If I hold my finger up high over my head and do this, it means “Let’s begin. Let’s get rolling. Start it up!” If I do it in front of my body with a dour look on my face, it means “Big deal. Whoop-de-do. Who cares? That is so unimportant that I won’t waste a second’s thought on it.”
  20. The Who Me Gesture – To indicate myself, I would point my thumb at my chest with my hand closed (fingers curled tightly). This says, “Me!” or “Who, me?” It is an interesting cultual difference to know that the Chinese use an index finger to point at the nose whereas the Americans use a thumb to point at the chest.
  21. The Raised Clenched Fist Sign – To clench is to close tightly. This gesture is often seen in sports events when someone wins. It means that one has seized victory or been victorious. We often say “Yes!” when making this gesture. We may also clench our teeth.
  22. The Gagging Sign – In this gesture you open your mouth and move your index finger in and out of your mouth a few times. Have you ever pushed your finger down your throat to make yourself throw up so you can feel better sooner? This gesture means that someone or something is making you sick (making you want to throw up). This means you really dislike someone to the point where they make you nauseous just thinking about them. Usually used by teenage girls when talking about nerd boys or someone who is “not cool”, a persona non grata.
  23. The Crazy Sign – If you do the Circling Finger gesture while pointing it towards your ear, this means that you believe that whoever you are talking about is crazy, nuts, suffering from a mental problem. Perhaps it indicates that someone’s brains are swirling around in his head like liquid goo swirling around a drain hole.
  24. The Shame on You Sign – This is used with a close friend. If you do something that I think is shameful or that I think you should be embarrassed about, I may either say “Shame on you” (for doing that) or I may make this hand gesture: I point my right index finger at you (like the gun gesture but with the thumb down) and then I take my left index finger and rub it on the top of my right index finger from back to front about three times.The Chinese gesture for this is to rub their right index finger against their right cheek downward about three times.
  25. The What the Heck Gesture – This gesture expresses puzzlement. If I hold my hand palm down in front of me about chest high and then slowly rotate it so that the palm is pointing upward, that indicates that I am asking my companion, “What is going on? What was that all about? Am I missing something?”
  26. The Moola Sign – I use moola here as a slang term for money or cold cash. If I hold out my first two fingers and rub my thumb against them a few times, this means moola, as in, “That’s going to cost a lot of moola.” or “That’s very expensive.” or “You’re going to have to pay me to do that.”

Can you describe some situations where any of these gestures might be used? Have you ever seen any of them used in American movies? Share your experience with us.

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