Soviet truckers transporting the goods on the roads of Western Europe were sometimes unspeakably surprised when ladies standing along the roads would show them the "fig gesture." Seasoned drivers would explain to the rookies that this gesture, in contrast to its usual meaning to the Russians, does not mean crude mockery or ridicule, but rather an invitation to intimate contact.
The same gestures can have completely different meanings for the representatives of different nations. This is true not only for the nations divided by a language barrier. The most amazing thing that the English-speaking Americans may inadvertently offend the English-speaking Australians by a single gesture.
Mentality, habit, and other factors define the meaning of gestures for different people. In Canada or the U.S. and a number of other countries, including Russia, the ring of the thumb and index finger symbolizes that everything is OK. But beware to show such signs to poorly educated Brazilians or Germans from the provincial settlements.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the phrase "OK" in the meaning "all right" first appeared in the article of Boston Morning Post on March 23, 1839. However, English physician John Bulwer wrote back in the 17th century: "When the four fingers are connected with the thumb, this means favoring, or approval. This is not the first evidence of the meaning of the sign.
"If the index finger and middle finger touch the thumb, this gesture is suitable for the expression of approval," Roman rhetorician Quintilian (ca. 35-95 BC) wrote in the textbook on eloquence. As for the Brazilians, they consider this gesture offensive. But the Germans, inheritors of the Holy Roman Empire, lost not only its former glory, but also the values of the old signs. A German worker was offended by this approving sign of his American colleague and refused to work with him. In Germany, this gesture signifies a butt, not the letter "O." However, the above anecdote relates to a time far from universal Americanization.
Ignorance in relation to other people's customs, as well as ignorance in relation to the law, does not relieve one from the punishment. Well, at least from condemnation. What is not excusable is when an offensive gesture is demonstrated not by some ignorant person but an official. In 1992, during his visit to Australia, U.S. President George W. Bush has demonstrated one of the world's most popular gestures - V, and by this he sent all to hell. This gesture, which is known as a victory sign (from the English victory, the French victoire and Flemish vrijheid), has two meanings: a triumphant one and a naughty one.
The first one appeared rather recently. During World War II, the host of BBC programs in Belgian Victor de Lavelle came up with a hand symbol of victory, which stands for the unity of the peoples in the struggle against the invaders. The V sign very quickly began to spread throughout Western Europe. The occupation authorities announced on the radio that those caught making graffiti of the sign will face tough punishment, and students were searched before they would leave school for chalk in their pockets.
Once people started painting the V-symbol with lipstick, paint and even cut it with diamonds on glass windows, propaganda minister of the Third Reich Joseph Goebbels ordered to disseminate the information that V was an old Germanic symbol of victory, Viktoria. This sign, according to Nazi ideology, was to symbolize "the union of all European nations in the fight against Bolshevism."
Having failed to curb the spread of V-character, Dr. Goebbels ordered to hang it on the Eiffel Tower. Meanwhile, Winston Churchill advocated the gesture in the UK.
But back to the incident with the White House representative. Why, after such glorious history (this is the only gesture that was not only painted, but also put to music: a telegraph signal Morse code for V is dot-dot-dot-dash, like the first notes of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony), the gesture was perceived as vulgar and indecent? In some countries a V-sign is a phallic symbol (if the back of the hand is turned to other person). In some pictures Churchill and Margaret Thatcher used both versions, but in their decent meaning and before the British public. It would have completely different meaning in Australia.
Surprisingly, the origin of the obscene gesture is recorded in the apocryphal medieval chronicles. On the eve of St. Crispin, October 25 of 1415, when a massacre was to break out in Aginkurte between the French armed archers and British crossbowmen, the French threatened the enemy soldiers that those who will be captured with arches in their hands will have their fingers cut off. The next morning, crossbowmen came down showing the two fingers.
In conclusion, a few words about where we started. The gesture, known as the fig, (when the thumb sticks out between your index and middle fingers) serves as a talisman against the evil eye (in Portugal). Sexually abusive meaning of this gesture in the last century was very common in Western Europe, but gradually disappeared. It seems like the current political correctness had its predecessor.