What Does a "Thumbs Up" Mean in Iraq?

iVillage Member
Registered: 03-23-2003
What Does a "Thumbs Up" Mean in Iraq?
15
Sat, 03-29-2003 - 1:52pm
http://slate.msn.com/id/2080812/

By Brendan I. Koerner

Posted Friday, March 28, 2003, at 12:51 PM PT



Giving the U.S. the old thumbs up



Iraqis are giving passing Americans the "thumbs up" sign, which the troops interpret as a symbol of support. But many veteran travelers insist that the gesture is a crass Middle Eastern insult. How should coalition forces take those skyward thumbs?

Depends on how media savvy those Iraqi bystanders may be. It's true that "thumbs up" traditionally translates as the foulest of Iraqi insults—the most straightforward interpretation is "Up yours, pal!" The sign has a similarly pejorative meaning in parts of West Africa, Russia, Australia, Iran, Greece, and Sardinia, according to Roger E. Axtell's book Gestures: The Do's and Taboos of Body Language Around the World. So, it's possible that the ostensibly cheering Iraqis are, in fact, silently voicing their displeasure.



But it's also possible that they understand the Western meaning of upturned thumbs, an explanation that the Army's Defense Language Institute subscribes to. According to a recent DLI manual on international gestures, after the first Gulf War "Middle Easterners of the Arabian Peninsula adopted this hand movement, along with the OK sign, as a symbol of cooperation toward freedom." Iraqi civilians may have noted this shifting meaning, perhaps via TV reports.

How the thumbs up became an upbeat gesture in the first place is something of a mystery. Legend has it that the signal dates back to Roman gladiatorial contests. A beaten combatant could supposedly be saved from a death blow if the emperor gave the thumbs up; a thumbs down was tantamount to an execution order. Though a favorite of Hollywood "swords and sandals" epics, this explanation has been completely debunked in recent years. In 1997, University of Kansas classics professor Anthony Philip Corbeill concluded that the thumbs up actually meant "Kill him," basing his assertion on a study of hundreds of ancient artworks. Instead, he wrote, a closed fist with a wraparound thumb was the indication for a gladiator's life to be spared.

No one's quite sure about where the positive American connotation comes from, though a good guess ascribes it to an English symbol of agreement. Desmond Morris' Gestures: Their Origins and Distribution traces the practice back to a medieval custom used to seal business transactions. The two involved parties would lick their thumbs, hold them erect, then smush them together. Over time, the mere sight of an upraised thumb came to symbolize harmony and kind feelings.

The gesture's popularization in America is generally attributed to the practices of World War II pilots, who used the thumbs up to communicate with ground crews prior to take-off. American GIs are reputed to have picked up on the thumb and spread it throughout Europe as they marched toward Berlin.


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iVillage Member
Registered: 03-18-2000
Sun, 03-30-2003 - 10:45am
Many signs mean different things to different nationalities. The American raised middle finger.... we all know what that means..... but in Britain to convey the same message you'd make a V (like the victory sign) but have the V facing down & flip it toward the person of choice.

The raised thumb as a sign of okay or agreement I was taught was from Roman times. Even though Anthony Philip Corbeill debunked that in '97 I still think it's the source of that sign.

I've heard in some countries crossed legs so that the sole of your shoe can be seen is rude.

Another country blowing your nose infront of other people is rude, I believe Belgium, this I can understand.

Most confusing.

 


Photobucket&nbs

iVillage Member
Registered: 03-23-2003
Sun, 03-30-2003 - 11:27am
No kidding. Actually, I didn't know about the British version of 'the bird'! ;-)

Part of the reason I posted that story was because I've heard people say, "The Iraqi people are sooo glad we're there...look, they're giving us a thumbs up in this photo!" That's when I went looking to determine if the 'thumbs up' meant the same thing in Iraq as it does here....and, while I agree that some Iraqis may be using it as a supportive gesture, I wouldn't count on it in all cases.


iVillage Member
Registered: 03-27-2003
Ready set Execute!!!!!
iVillage Member
Registered: 03-18-2000
we'd better stop using the 'Agree' incon.

 


Photobucket&nbs

iVillage Member
Registered: 03-23-2003
ROTFLMAO!!!

iVillage Member
Registered: 03-26-2003
My husband works for Verizon Wireless, and in one of their ad campaigns, they used the "V" victory signal. I believe he said they had a little trouble with that because of the way the British use the sign. I thought he said that if your thumb was facing the other person, it was a victory sign. If your thumb was facing you, it meant the other........ With Verizon being an international company, I'm surprised that someone didn't realize, or understand, that BEFORE they went to the expense of creating a campaign!
iVillage Member
Registered: 03-18-2000
No kidding! No thumbs up to Verizon's ad campaign planners.

 


Photobucket&nbs

iVillage Member
Registered: 03-26-2003
well-maybe we can spit or bite instead-would be hard to misinterpret that?

Annie
iVillage Member
Registered: 03-23-2003
Mon, 03-31-2003 - 11:48am
Execute what?

iVillage Member
Registered: 03-23-2003
Mon, 03-31-2003 - 11:54am
And your point is? Mine was that the American people (as well as people elsewhere) quite often do not understand that a common 'gesture' or phrase here might mean something totally different elsewhere.

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