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Sunday, October 20, 2013

One of the most ubiquitous hand gestures in the world is the “V-Sign.” It is made by straightening the index and middle finger of the hand so that they stick up in a V-shape while the other fingers and thumb are curled against the palm. The gesture has lots of meanings depending on the cultural context in which it is used. It can represent victory or success, or it indicated a wish for peace. It can represent the number two (if you are ordering two drinks at a bar); or it can be “rabbit ears” held behind someone’s head just before the picture is snapped. It can also be an insult, especially if the two upright fingers are flicked in the direction of another.

No one is completely sure where the V-Sign originated. The most popular theory is that it began about 600 years ago during the Hundred Years War between England and France. At the Battle of Agincourt, Longbow archers were England’s greatest weapon. They could launch their arrows at the French from a distance where they could not be attacked themselves. The French King allegedly ordered that any Longbow man captured was to have his index and middle finger cut off prohibiting him from ever firing his arrows again. In defiance, the English archers would shake these two fingers at the French to show them that they could still deliver their arrows. It was a “take that” kind of gesture.

As romantic as this story is, it’s improbable. English bowmen were so far back behind the lines that it’s doubtful the enemy could even see their fingers. Also, armies at that time generally did not take and hold prisoners, they executed them. Cutting off two fingers is a little pointless if the prisoner was about to be killed anyway.

This brings us to the two basic types of V-Signs in use today. They differ by the direction that the user’s palm faces. With the palm facing backward toward the user himself, it is considered an insult; with the palm facing forward toward another, it is likely to be seen as a victory sign or peace sign. 
It is generally believed that the V-Sign was first used as an insult. In the British Commonwealth countries today, a V-Sign with the palm facing inward, and knuckles outward, is still considered an insult. If it is accompanied by an up and down motion, it is thought to be highly profane; but is still perceived as being less aggressive than the middle finger only gesture.

When the palm is facing outward toward others, the V-Sign is suggests victory. Beginning during World War II, it has been closely associated with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. It actually began with a Belgian resistance leader, Victor de Laveleye, who clearly used it meaning victory (or freedom in Flemish). British media encouraged its adoption and Churchill was frequently seen in photographs making the sign. At first he used it with the palm facing inward (the insult) possibly not knowing what that meant; but some thought that he knew exactly what it stood for and was sending a message to the Nazis. By the end of the war, the V-Sign was embraced by all Allied personnel.

By the early 1960’s in the United States, the V-Sign took on new meanings. While it still stood for victory for one’s causes, it also came to be a symbol of the peace and anti-war movements. It was used as an anti-nuclear gesture as well. Many politicians attempted to endear themselves to the public by using the sign. Most of them over-used it, like Richard Nixon’s two-handed V-Signs. The V-Sign has become a very popular practice in Japan and South Korea during the last 35 years. It represents happiness to the younger generations, somewhat like a “thumbs up” sign in the west. Today, the sign is used worldwide by political movements, sports teams, and schools.

Another more recent use of the V-Sign occurs when the hand is held horizontal, palm down, and the two straightened fingers are moved from the eyes of the signer toward another as in “I am watching you.”

However the sign is used or interpreted today, it’s likely to be around for a long time.

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