David Crystal

Beyond words | 13 December 2018

Throughout the world, the simplest gestures can mean entirely different, often contradictory, things

You may have read about this during the Iraq war. A group of local people approach an American position. A US soldier holds out his hand at arm’s length, palm outwards, in the traditional gesture of ‘halt’. The locals keep on coming. He repeats the gesture. They keep advancing. So he opens fire. The locals turn out to be civilians, not fighters. The Americans evidently didn’t know that this gesture, throughout the Middle East, is a friendly greeting. It means ‘hi’ rather than ‘halt’.

Very few gestures are universal, and François Caradec’s fascinating collection shows the way they vary around the world. It’s not a dictionary; more a thesaurus, divided into 37 thematic sections, each one dealing with a different part of the body, and organised from head to foot. He classifies them from the top down — gestures using the head, temple, ear, forehead, eyebrows, eyelashes, eye, nose, mouth, lips, tongue, teeth, cheeks, chin, neck, shoulders, armpits, arm, forearm, elbow, wrist, fingernails, hand, fist, both hands, thumb, each finger, torso, chest, hips, waist, stomach, buttocks, groin, thighs, knees, legs, and feet. The hand is the most versatile, with more than 80 gestures; the index finger more than 60. A remarkable 855 in all. Each is given a succinct description, a line drawing (by Philippe Cousin), and an interpretation — often an accompanying literary quotation showing how writers incorporate gestures into a story.

Sometimes the meaning of a gesture is obvious, but mostly we have to know the culture before we can interpret it. Many are so unconscious that there’s a pleasure of recognition when we encounter them in Caradec’s list — as when, in a pub, we draw a circle with our index finger above some glasses: ‘another round, please’.

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