Sunday, January 12, 2014

Apple #657: Shame on You Gesture

Regular Daily Apple reader John of Gaunt wants to know where the "shame on you" gesture came from.  You know the one, where you point one finger and scrape the forefinger of the other hand down the top of it over and over.

We used to say "tsk tsk" while doing this, or "naughty, naughty."  It was usually a way one kid told another in a sing-song sort of way, "Uh-oh, you're about to get in Troub-le."

I haven't thought of this in YEARS.  John of Gaunt says he hasn't either, but it came up in conversation and nobody knew where the gesture had come from. It seems to be something that kids do, but adults generally don't.  Unless they really want to infuriate or tease somebody.

So where did it come from?  Why does this particular gesture mean this particular thing?

  • The short answer is, nobody knows.
  • This gesture and its accompanying meaning is strictly a North American thing.  Try this in some other part of the world, and nobody will know what the heck you're doing. 

"Shame, shame" should probably have an "I don't really mean it" expression accompanying the gesture to show you're teasing. Otherwise you could really tick someone off.
(Photo from SPOAG - Society for the Preservation of Anachronistic Gesture)

  • Many ideas have been proposed about the origin of this gesture.  Ideas range from the plausible to the odd to the sort of thing that makes you think, whoever came up with that explanation obviously has weird psychological issues that I don't even want to get into.
  • Here are some of those ideas: 
    • It mimics an adult slapping a hand on a child's wrist to correct misbehavior.
    • It means, "You are like this dry skin I am wiping from my finger. Take that!" [wipe wipe]. Perhaps whoever came up with this could use some hand lotion?
    • The motion resembles wiping cooties off oneself and onto another person.  Grade school cooties, of course.
    • The pointing draws attention to the wrong-doer, and the rubbing of the finger represents corporal punishment, meaning the wrong-doer should be hit for what he or she just did.
    • The motion resembles friction, like sawing, which in turn suggests that the wrong-doer ought to have a finger sawn off for what he or she just did. yikes!
    • The motion resembles friction, reminiscent of rubbing 2 sticks together to start a fire, which in turn reminds someone of witchcraft trials (a bit of a leap there), so perhaps it's meant to suggest you should be burned for what you just did.
    • The motion resembles a carrot being peeled.  Why that would be relevant, the person wasn't sure, except perhaps it might suggest you ought to peel the "dirty" parts of yourself away. Egad.
    • The motion resembles 2 knives being sharpened against each other.  But why that would be relevant, the person has no idea. I think this person needs 2 of their mental knives sharpened.
    • The position of the fingers is similar to that of a cross, so the motion therefore resembles breaking a crucifix. The suggestion is that in making this gesture, it is similar to holding up your two fingers crossed to ward off a demon. (Except this gesture includes motion, so it seems the meaning of this gesture should be different, but how it's different, the person whose idea this is doesn't explain.)


Making the shape of the cross with your fingers.  This photo is a bit blurry, but it was the only non-stock photo of this gesture that I could find.  You would think, with the number of times that people have done this in horror movies, that pictures of this would be everywhere.  Nope. Everything is of crossing your fingers.  Not the same thing. And in my opinion, making the shape of a cross and rubbing your finger over the top of the other in a "shame, shame" gesture are also not the same thing.
(Photo from Freethinker's Corner)

  • If I have to choose one meaning, I think the first one sounds the most likely, that it's mimicking an adult slapping away the hand of the misbehaving child.
  • But that's just my guess, nothing authoritative at all.  So I've not been much help in answering John of Gaunt's question.  But I do have one other somewhat substantive thing to add.
  • If I had to say who makes the "shame, shame" gesture the most often, it would be in this order:
    • one child to another -- most often
    • an adult to a child -- maybe once or twice
    • one adult to another -- hardly ever
  • If the gesture is meant to mimic an adult slapping away the had of a child, then it's sort of ironic, isn't it, that the people who make the gesture the most often are children doing it to each other.
  • The reason adults hardly ever make this gesture, whether to a child or to each other, is probably because the gesture is, at its heart, pointing.
  • As I'm sure you know, pointing at someone is inherently rude.  Pointing at a thing you want might be the first method of communication that we learn as infants, and it is an important tool of the pre-verbal.  But when you have words, pointing at a person is a very different thing.  It's really not something you want to do unless you're itching for a fight.
"At close quarters, pointing at another human being is almost universally considered an aggressive, hostile, or unfriendly act. Because it focuses so much attention upon the recipient, close-quarters pointing is frowned upon throughout the world." [quoted from a page no longer accessible online]

Unpleasant to be pointed at, isn't it?  After about 3 seconds of looking at this, you want to smack that finger away, don't you?
(Photo from Flickr via International Business Times)

  • If pointing at someone is likely to start a fight, pointing plus saying, "Shame, shame," at another adult would be so rude, you'd be likely to get your face bashed in.  
  • So I imagine the reason we adults don't do this anymore is because at some point (pun), we learned not to.  We've outgrown it.


  1. I invented the finger rub back in 1972 as a gesture to tell others what they are doing is shameful and they should stop.
    My father was putting together a garden and my cousin Mike decided to throw dirt into our driveway. I was having none of it and I shamed him by crossing my index finger over my other index and "brushing" it forward as a sign to stop doing it. It also meant what he was doing was shameful.

    Next thing I know other kids in the neighborhood are doing it to shame other children. They were running around all over the place shaming people. Teachers, firemen, police, priests, doctors, lawyers and especially parental units were being shamed to high heaven. It was horrible.
    At that point I decided that the only people allowed to make the gesture was a parent to a child or an elder child to a younger one. And it could only happen when that younger child was actually doing something shameful.
    Because, as a five year old I had set this rule up it started losing its cache over the years and usually only older brothers and sisters took advantage of what I dubbed "the shameful finger shrug."

  2. Five stars for creativity for this very entertaining (yet apocryphal) post.


If you're a spammer, there's no point posting a comment. It will automatically get filtered out or deleted. Comments from real people, however, are always very welcome!