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The Lowdown On The Thumbs Up

Now, to be fair, the use of positive reinforcers to shape human behaviour for the better is undoubtedly commendable and, in many cases, useful. In that spirit, perhaps the thumbs-up gesture is serving a noble purpose after all. Who knows?

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Gladiators Gain the Upper Hand and Thumb Uppers - A planksip Möbius

The Lowdown On The Thumbs Up

Feeling blue? Can’t seem to be satisfied, despite your best efforts at keeping yourself happy? I know off one particular finger that I can flip you that may bring you some joy. Now, you may be thinking, “Hey, I don’t think that would put a smile on my face!”

It’s doubtful, however, that we are thinking of the same finger. No, the finger I am referring to is unique to us within the taxonomic order of primates. One often dismissed as a finger at all: the great, multipurpose opposable thumb.

Indeed, our thumbs are handy tools. The great thumb allowed our earlier ancestors to more easily peel bananas; Charles Darwin would surely agree. However, he did not live to witness its gradual shift into a completely new function, one which has now totally eclipsed its initial purpose (although having a thumb still definitely makes bananas a lot easier to peel).

Nevertheless, it is evident that the first use of the thumb, as a means of consuming complexly packaged fruit, has transformed into a gesture used to indicate approval. Of course, this gesture is nuanced and quite complicated, to sum up in a single sentence.

So, are you ready to learn more about the thumbs-up and what it has come to mean in our modern, digital world? Read on to learn more!

Who Started All This?

Now, before delving into the current day significance of the extended thumb, it is vital to first explore its origins. After all, without a proper understanding of a concept’s roots, it can be difficult to fully grasp its significance (and yes, we are talking about the importance of a thumbs up here!)

The precise origins of the “thumbs up” gesture are not precisely clear. Historians have proposed several possible explanations as to where and how it may have first arisen, none of which are one hundred percent agreed upon as the very first official thumbs-up. Because many of these alleged early thumbs-up occurred long before anyone thought to record everything from their current mood to what they were having for lunch, none of them can indeed be counted on as an adequate or fair instance of the “thumbs up”, at least as far as it is understood in a modern context. Nonetheless, it is worth mentioning some of them so that you can get an idea of how this whole thumb thing might have gotten started.

The first explanation, proposed by anthropologist Carleton S. Coon (a man whose theories on race have long been discredited as pseudoscientific, potentially rendering the following information utterly useless) suggests that the gesture may have been started by early apes, simply as a way to express their gratitude for having opposable thumbs.  This does sort of make sense, especially when you consider that Coon came to this conclusion based on his observation of Barbary macaques in twentieth-century Gibraltar flipping each other the fat finger.

Still, it is unclear whether this is sufficient evidence that giving each other the pointed gesture was something monkeys began to do on their own, before we came along, or if this is actually just proof of the other, equally likely possibility that they are simply mimicking human behavior. After all, they are known to do that.

Furthermore, not all primates possess this highly versatile digit: tarsiers and marmosets, for instance, have thumbs which are not opposable, while spider monkeys and colobuses do not have thumbs at all. Notwithstanding, among us great apes in which opposable thumbs have become an essential evolutionary trait, it is primarily still used as a means of peeling bananas and grabbing objects.

Another theory, which has been more widely accepted than the previous one --  though still not definitive enough to end the debate once and for all -- is that the thumbs-up was first used to signal approval or disapproval during gladiatorial combat in ancient Rome. Indeed, the Latin phrase pollice verso roughly translates to “turn of the thumb”, and it is extensively documented that the thumb was used to pass judgment after a fight. Who could forget this iconic scene from the Academy Award-winning motion picture Gladiator?

However, while acknowledging that the turning of the thumb certainly was a prominent fixture of the Roman gladiator experience, historians disagree as to what exactly the gesture was meant to signify at the time; in fact, some historians actually believe that the gesture was used to communicate the exact opposite meaning of the one it has now. A thumb pointed towards the sky meant that the losing gladiator was to be sentenced to death; a thumb pointed towards the ground meant that he was spared of such a fate.

So in sum: while this does serve as an adequate answer as to when the thumb became a gesture carrying a distinct meaning, one of judgment, it does not answer the question of when the thumbs up began to take on its positive connotations, and, conversely, when the thumbs down became the dominant mode of signifying that one disliked a movie (let’s just go with Roger Ebert for now).

So, Is It “Okay”?

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the more cheery “thumbs up” we love and appreciate today was first recorded in Over The Top, an autobiographical novel penned by the American soldier Arthur Guy Empey, documenting his experiences serving with the British armed forces during the First World War. Indeed, early twentieth-century films from the U.K. contain visual instances of the gesture being used to mean “okay.” Take, for example, the silent movie The Lodger: A Story Of The London Fog, in which one character presents his upward-facing thumb to another character after examining some money.

It was not until the second World War that the splayed thumb became a ubiquitous American symbol for “all good.” Chinese citizens would give American fighter pilots (also known as the Flying Tigers) a thumbs up to signify their gratitude to them. The gesture was often accompanied by the phrase “ting hao de!” which means “very good!”. At that time, the thumbs up was already popular among the Chinese to communicate the phrase “you’re number one!” (which is still the case to this day). Once the aviators picked up on the thumbs up, it was only a matter of time before the rest of the U.S. military began to follow suit. Before long, civilians and military men alike were exchanging joyous thumbs up.

But, Is It Always “Okay”?

Now, as we have thus determined, pointing one’s thumb up in order to transmit positive feedback is, aside from a few macaques across the pond, a uniquely human affair. However, it is very necessary (as is Dr. Dre’s technique) to point out that this is not necessarily what it means to all humans.

It only makes sense to understand what our famous thumbs-up means to other cultures, especially those in which the gesture is actively used to express a less positive sentiment. This is especially important to understand in the digital age. Now that the “thumbs up” emoji is universally used on many social media platforms (most notably Facebook) as a way to positively react to someone’s post.

In Iraq, for instance, the hand signal carries a deeply negative connotation, which probably made communication during the two wars we had over there a lot more confusing, and potentially may have aggravated things further. So it goes. In Iran, too, the sign typically conveys a derogatory meaning.

Moral of the story here? When travelling abroad, flash that thumb with caution.

Does It Even Matter?

Let’s face it: almost every interaction on social media tends to be empty, insincere. As a matter of fact, the primary function of social media, at least as it exists today, is preserving one’s fragile sense of self in an increasingly image-obsessed world. Websites like Facebook and Instagram give us delicate mortals something (seemingly) concrete to hold onto, however fleeting this grasp may be. We return the favour by making sure we visit them several times throughout the day, every day, religiously. This, of course, is the true nature of social networking (Mark Zuckerberg would never cop to that, but just ask Sean Parker and see what I’m talking about).

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Beyond social media, it is quite unfortunate that we as a species have become so reliant on other people’s perceptions of us that we are unable to simply live, freely, as human beings with only a finite length of time in which we can test the limits of our existence. In fact, it was the revolutionary twentieth-century existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre who famously said that mankind is “condemned to be free”; by this, he meant to say that free will, a trait (allegedly) shared by all within our species that should serve as a great liberating force, is actually (consciously or, more likely, unconsciously), a heavy burden we all wear, in deep shame, as we carefully trod through our numbered days in a single-file line, far too fearful to even dare venture outside of the boundaries set in place by the particular society in which we find ourselves.

We’ve essentially been given detailed instructions, in the form of laws and customs passed down from generation to generation (l’dor v’dor!), on how we should be conducting ourselves as humans.

Why, then, would it make sense for us to veer away from all of the things we have been doing for so long, that have kept us trucking on thus far, out of some crazed desire to seize the day, like a bunch of kids in prep school poetry class in the late fifties? Our refusal to truly explore the nature of our freedom as humans, purely out of fear that we will be perceived negatively by others in our tribe, is why Sartre concluded that “Hell is other people.”

How Can We Ever Know What The Future Will Hold?

Now, to be fair, the use of positive reinforcers to shape human behaviour for the better is undoubtedly commendable and, in many cases, useful. In that spirit, perhaps the thumbs-up gesture is serving a noble purpose after all. Who knows? I just wonder whether or not we will evolve a new hand gesture at some point, used to signal something more complex, such as “eh, that was alright” or something to that effect.

Only time will tell . . .

Gladiators Gain the Upper Hand and Thumb Uppers - A planksip Möbius

Daniel Sanderson

Published a month ago