Wondrous Words Wednesday: gestures

Wondrous Words Wednesday is a weekly meme where we share new (to us) and interesting (to us, again) words we encountered in our readings. See this week round-up at BermudaOnion’s blog!


My idea for this post stemmed originally from reading a passage in A Feast for Crows by George R.R. Martin:

She cried her wares in the trade tongue, the language of the wharves and docks and sailors’ taverns, a coarse jumble of words and phrases from a dozen languages, accompanied by hand signs and gestures, most of them insulting. Those were the ones that Cat liked best. Any man who bothered her was apt to see the fig.

It was clear from the context that the “fig” [1] is an obscene gesture, and while I had no idea what this gesture was like, I also had no interest in discovering it.

Then, more recently, I read another book (in German, so not suitable for this post) with a strong focus on Italian gestures of all kinds, and while the “fig” did not make an appearance, the book made me decide to go online and do some research, and I did find a (hodgepodge) list of gestures that includes the following:

Fig sign is a gesture made with the hand and fingers curled and the thumb thrust between the middle and index fingers, or, rarely, the middle and ring fingers, forming the fist so that the thumb partly pokes out.

The fig sign (from Wikipedia)

In some areas of the world, the gesture is considered a good luck charm; in others (including France, Greece, Indonesia, Japan, Russia, Serbia and Turkey among others), it is considered an obscene gesture. The precise origin of the gesture is unknown, but many historians speculate that it refers to female genitalia. In ancient Greece, this gesture was a fertility and good luck charm designed to ward off evil. This usage has survived in Portugal [2] and Brazil, where carved images of hands in this gesture are used in good luck talismans, and in Friuli.

Now, this is probably not very interesting for most of you, but do you see that last word, Friuli? That’s my home region in Italy. And I don’t think I ever saw this gesture there, either as good charm or as obscene. What I did see is a taunting/game people do with little children, whereby you pinch their nose, then show them your hand in this gesture (taking care that the nail is not showing) and tell them you’ve plucked their nose out.[3] Daft, I know, but I wonder: can that be a trace of an older use of the gesture as a good-luck charm?


Notes and questions:

[1] I do hope no one is offended by the fact that this post is about a possibly obscene gesture.

[2] I haven’t seen it in Portugal either, but to my Portuguese readers: have you ever seen it used here?

[3] To my sister: if you get a chance, could you ask Granny if she’s ever seen/used this gesture, except in the taunting context?


6 comments on “Wondrous Words Wednesday: gestures

  1. I’ve never heard of or seen that gesture either, even when we lived in France. By the way, we do the same things with kids’ noses here in the US. Who knows why?

  2. Thanks all for visiting!
    @ Kathy: if you do the same in the US, then probably my hypothesis is wrong. Oh, well.
    In the meantime, husband pointed out that Dante used this same word (in its Italian version, which is also extremely vulgar in our language!) in the Commedia:

    At the conclusion of his words, the thief
    Lifted his hands aloft with both the figs,
    Crying: “Take that, God, for at thee I aim them.”

    (See the whole text here)

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