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Give Me a Sign: The Stories Behind 5 Hand Gestures

So much can be said with a hand gesture. Here are the stories behind gestures you might use every day, and some you might not.

1. The Vulcan Salute

We all know it, even if we can't all do it. The Vulcan Salute, made famous by Leonard Nimoy as Mr. Spock on the original Star Trek, has become a cultural icon recognized even by those who have never been to a sci-fi convention. And while the gesture is meant to be from another planet, its inspiration is anything but alien.

When Nimoy was a child, he witnessed a Jewish ritual called the "kohane blessing," which uses a hand sign meant to resemble the Hebrew letter "shin," which symbolizes the Hebrew word for "Shaddai," meaning "Almighty (God)." (Got that?) It's made by splitting the hand down the middle—holding the index and middle fingers together, the ring and pinky fingers together—and then the thumb pressed firmly against the side of the hand. The Orthodox priest giving the blessing holds both hands out in front of him in these strange configurations, palms down. When Nimoy was developing a greeting to be used between Vulcans, he remembered the sign and adapted it, using only one hand held up, and pulling his thumb away from the rest of the hand.

Nimoy had no problem doing the salute, but not all Trek actors have been so lucky.

William Shatner had to have his fingers tied together with fishing line whenever Captain Kirk needed to use the sign. Even the latest pointy-eared Vulcan, actor Zachary Quinto, who played a younger Mr. Spock in the recent blockbuster film, had to have his fingers stuck together with the skin-safe superglue used by hospitals as a replacement for traditional stitches.

2. The Shaka Sign

Folding your three middle fingers down while holding out your thumb and pinky, then twisting your hand around, is a strange gesture to say the least. But if you visit Hawaii, you're likely to see it a lot. The gesture, called The Shaka Sign, can be interpreted as "Hello," "Goodbye," "Have a nice day," "Take it easy," "Good luck," or, the most popular definition, "Hang loose." Unfortunately, the sign's history is a bit vague.

The oldest origin story goes back to the days when Spanish sailors first landed on the Hawaiian Islands. Unable to speak the native tongue, but trying to be friendly, the Spaniards offered to share a drink by mimicking a bottle with their hand with the gesture and tilting back their head. This became such a common greeting that the natives simply believed that's how the Spanish said hello, so they started using the sign whenever the two groups encountered one another.

Another theory, from the mid-20th Century, claims the sign was inspired by the wave of a beloved local named Hamana Kalili, who'd lost the middle fingers on one hand. There are multiple theories as to how he lost his fingers: there was a shark attack, they were blown off while using dynamite to catch fish, or perhaps the digits were lost in an accident while working on a sugar plantation. But no one knows for sure anymore.

As if the origin of the gesture isn't mysterious enough, the word Shaka isn't even Hawaiian. However, most people agree the name goes back to a local used car salesman, Lippy Espinda, who would throw up the sign at the end of popular TV commercials during the 1960s and 70s, and say, "Shacka, brah!" ("Shocker, bro!")

During his Inauguration Parade, Barack Obama threw the Shaka Sign to greet Honolulu's Punahou School marching band.

3. The Corna

Hand gestures can have multiple meanings. Perhaps one of the best examples of this is the "hand horn," also known as the "corna," where only the pinky and the index finger point up while the other fingers are held in the palm under the thumb.

If you're in Italy or Spain and you flash this sign towards a man, you might get beaten up. In this culture, the symbol represents the horns of one of nature's most virile animals, the bull. The bull in this case is usually meant to symbolize the guy sleeping with the man's wife behind his back. The sign can also be interpreted with the cuckold as the bull, who has been symbolically castrated by his wife. Either way it's bound to make him see red.

However, turn your palm down and point the extended fingers at someone who doesn't like you, and you're simply guarding yourself from the Evil Eye. In ancient times, bulls were often seen as protective deities, so turning the bull's horns against an enemy was a way of keeping the curse at bay.

On a similar note, in South America, if you have the horn sign held up and twist it back and forth, it's known as "lagarto" or Lizard Gesture. Similar to the old superstition "Knock on wood," it's thought that by doing this you can protect yourself from any bad mojo that might occur after someone utters the taboo word "culebra," or snake.

Of course the corna is also used by fans of the University of Texas, where they call it the "Hook 'Em Horns." Created in 1955 by student Harley Clark, the sign represents the school's mascot, a Texas longhorn steer named Bevo, and his impressive 72" horns. Being a Texas native former Governor of Texas, though not a UT alumni, President George W. Bush and his family were known for flashing the Hook 'Em Horns during appearances in the Lone Star State.

But there's another group of fans who use the corna, too "“ fans of heavy metal music. The gesture in metal goes back to occultist band Coven, a group heavily inspired by counter culture figures like renowned Satanist Anton LaVey, who used the corna as a sign of the Devil. However, it was Ronnie James Dio, lead singer for Black Sabbath in the late-1970s, that really made the sign take hold in the genre. He borrowed the gesture from his superstitious Italian grandmother who used it to ward off evil. He felt the sign's pagan origins fit perfectly with the subject matter of the band's music.

4. The Pledge of Allegiance

Chances are, when you were saying the Pledge of Allegiance in elementary school, you placed your hand over your heart in a sign of adoration for Old Glory. But if you were in school before World War II, you probably used an entirely different gesture to address the flag—the Bellamy Salute.

The editor of a children's publication called The Youth's Companion created the unofficial salute in 1892 shortly after the Pledge was written, and named it after the author, Francis Bellamy. For the first three words of the Pledge ("I pledge allegiance"), the right hand was held at the brow in a military salute. Then, as the reciter got to the phrase, "to my flag" (the original words), the arm was extended up and out, pointing towards the flag, fingers together, with the palm facing up in a gesture of presentation. This pose was held while the rest of the Pledge was recited.

However, as the years went by, parts of the Bellamy Salute fell out of use, while others evolved. First, the military salute was abandoned, leaving only the straight arm presentation of the flag. But then the palm went from facing up, to sideways, and by the 1940s, it faced down. This last version became a problem as America entered World War II, because it so closely resembled the stiff-armed salute of dictators Mussolini and Hitler. The hand over the heart gesture was suggested as a viable alternative and President Franklin Roosevelt signed it into law in 1942 as part of the Flag Code, making it the official gesture for the Pledge of Allegiance we all know today.

5. The High Five

The roots of the high five go back to the Jazz Era of the early 20th Century. Black musicians of the time created numerous ways to say hello, such as "giving some skin," "giving five," and later a series of complicated, interconnected handshake gestures called a "dap." Then, in the late-1970s, college and professional basketball players began raising their arms above their heads and slapping the palms of their hands together, in what would later be dubbed the "high five."

While no one can say for sure where the high five came from, some believe the first one was exchanged between Glenn Burke and Dusty Baker, baseball players for the L.A. Dodgers, after a home run in 1977. But there is one man who claims he knows the origin of the high five, because he says he's the guy who invented it.

Lamont Sleets, Jr. says he adopted the high five from a salute his father exchanged with old Army buddies from the 5th Infantry regiment, nicknamed "The Five." To say hello, the men would stick their hand straight up in the air, spread their fingers wide, and call out "Five!" Anytime he saw the Five greeting, Sleets Jr. would say "Hi, Five!" to the visiting veteran and slapped the upraised hand with his own. Sleets Jr. went on to become one of the top basketball players at Murray State University in the late-1970s and he brought his odd salutation with him. It became popular with his teammates, and as the team traveled the country to play other schools, Sleets says the gesture caught on.

To celebrate this infamous hand gesture, students at the University of Virginia created "National High Five Day," which takes place on the third Thursday in April (yesterday).
* * * * * *
Have a favorite fun hand gesture we didn't mention? Is there one you've always wondered where it came from? Tell us about it in the comments below!

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10 Memorable Neil deGrasse Tyson Quotes
Michael Campanella/Getty Images
Michael Campanella/Getty Images

Neil deGrasse Tyson is America's preeminent badass astrophysicist. He's a passionate advocate for science, NASA, and education. He's also well-known for a little incident involving Pluto. And the man holds nearly 20 honorary doctorates (in addition to his real one). In honor of his 59th birthday, here are 10 of our favorite Neil deGrasse Tyson quotes.

1. ON SCIENCE

"The good thing about science is that it's true whether or not you believe in it."
—From Real Time with Bill Maher.

2. ON NASA FUNDING

"As a fraction of your tax dollar today, what is the total cost of all spaceborne telescopes, planetary probes, the rovers on Mars, the International Space Station, the space shuttle, telescopes yet to orbit, and missions yet to fly?' Answer: one-half of one percent of each tax dollar. Half a penny. I’d prefer it were more: perhaps two cents on the dollar. Even during the storied Apollo era, peak NASA spending amounted to little more than four cents on the tax dollar." 
—From Space Chronicles

3. ON GOD AND HURRICANES

"Once upon a time, people identified the god Neptune as the source of storms at sea. Today we call these storms hurricanes ... The only people who still call hurricanes acts of God are the people who write insurance forms."
—From Death by Black Hole

4. ON THE BENEFITS OF TECHNOLOGY INVENTED FOR USE IN SPACE

"Countless women are alive today because of ideas stimulated by a design flaw in the Hubble Space Telescope." (Editor's note: technology used to repair the Hubble Space Telescope's optical problems led to improved technology for breast cancer detection.)
—From Space Chronicles

5. ON THE DEMOTION OF PLUTO FROM PLANET STATUS 


PBS

"I knew Pluto was popular among elementary schoolkids, but I had no idea they would mobilize into a 'Save Pluto' campaign. I now have a drawer full of hate letters from hundreds of elementary schoolchildren (with supportive cover letters from their science teachers) pleading with me to reverse my stance on Pluto. The file includes a photograph of the entire third grade of a school posing on their front steps and holding up a banner proclaiming, 'Dr. Tyson—Pluto is a Planet!'"
—From The Sky Is Not the Limit

6. ON JAMES CAMERON'S TITANIC

"In [Titanic], the stars above the ship bear no correspondence to any constellations in a real sky. Worse yet, while the heroine bobs ... we are treated to her view of this Hollywood sky—one where the stars on the right half of the scene trace the mirror image of the stars in the left half. How lazy can you get?"
—From Death by Black Hole

7. ON DEATH BY ASTEROID

"On Friday the 13th, April 2029, an asteroid large enough to fill the Rose Bowl as though it were an egg cup will fly so close to Earth that it will dip below the altitude of our communication satellites. We did not name this asteroid Bambi. Instead, we named it Apophis, after the Egyptian god of darkness and death."
—From Space Chronicles

8. ON THE MOTIVATIONS BEHIND AMERICA'S MOONSHOT

"[L]et us not fool ourselves into thinking we went to the Moon because we are pioneers, or discoverers, or adventurers. We went to the Moon because it was the militaristically expedient thing to do."
—From The Sky Is Not the Limit

9. ON INTELLIGENT LIFE (OR THE LACK THEREOF)

Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life.
Read more at: https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/n/neildegras615117.html
Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life.
Read more at: https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/n/neildegras615117.html

"Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life."

10. PRACTICAL ADVICE IN THE EVENT OF ALIEN CONTACT 

A still from Steven Spielberg's E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial
Universal Studios

"[I]f an alien lands on your front lawn and extends an appendage as a gesture of greeting, before you get friendly, toss it an eightball. If the appendage explodes, then the alien was probably made of antimatter. If not, then you can proceed to take it to your leader."
—From Death by Black Hole

How Apple's '1984' Super Bowl Ad Was Almost Canceled

More than 30 years ago, Apple defined the Super Bowl commercial as a cultural phenomenon. Prior to Super Bowl XVIII, nobody watched the game "just for the commercials"—but one epic TV spot, directed by sci-fi legend Ridley Scott, changed all that. Read on for the inside story of the commercial that rocked the world of advertising, even though Apple's Board of Directors didn't want to run it at all.

THE AD

If you haven't seen it, here's a fuzzy YouTube version:

"WHY 1984 WON'T BE LIKE 1984"

The tagline "Why 1984 Won't Be Like '1984'" references George Orwell's 1949 novel 1984, which envisioned a dystopian future, controlled by a televised "Big Brother." The tagline was written by Brent Thomas and Steve Hayden of the ad firm Chiat\Day in 1982, and the pair tried to sell it to various companies (including Apple, for the Apple II computer) but were turned down repeatedly. When Steve Jobs heard the pitch in 1983, he was sold—he saw the Macintosh as a "revolutionary" product, and wanted advertising to match. Jobs saw IBM as Big Brother, and wanted to position Apple as the world's last chance to escape IBM's domination of the personal computer industry. The Mac was scheduled to launch in late January of 1984, a week after the Super Bowl. IBM already held the nickname "Big Blue," so the parallels, at least to Jobs, were too delicious to miss.

Thomas and Hayden wrote up the story of the ad: we see a world of mind-controlled, shuffling men all in gray, staring at a video screen showing the face of Big Brother droning on about "information purification directives." A lone woman clad in vibrant red shorts and a white tank-top (bearing a Mac logo) runs from riot police, dashing up an aisle towards Big Brother. Just before being snatched by the police, she flings a sledgehammer at Big Brother's screen, smashing him just after he intones "We shall prevail!" Big Brother's destruction frees the minds of the throng, who quite literally see the light, flooding their faces now that the screen is gone. A mere eight seconds before the one-minute ad concludes, a narrator briefly mentions the word "Macintosh," in a restatement of that original tagline: "On January 24th, Apple Computer will introduce Macintosh. And you'll see why 1984 won't be like '1984.'" An Apple logo is shown, and then we're out—back to the game.

In 1983, in a presentation about the Mac, Jobs introduced the ad to a cheering audience of Apple employees:

"... It is now 1984. It appears IBM wants it all. Apple is perceived to be the only hope to offer IBM a run for its money. Dealers, initially welcoming IBM with open arms, now fear an IBM-dominated and -controlled future. They are increasingly turning back to Apple as the only force that can ensure their future freedom. IBM wants it all and is aiming its guns on its last obstacle to industry control: Apple. Will Big Blue dominate the entire computer industry? The entire information age? Was George Orwell right about 1984?"

After seeing the ad for the first time, the Apple audience totally freaked out (jump to about the 5-minute mark to witness the riotous cheering).

SKINHEADS, A DISCUS THROWER, AND A SCI-FI DIRECTOR

Chiat\Day hired Ridley Scott, whose 1982 sci-fi film Blade Runner had the dystopian tone they were looking for (and Alien wasn't so bad either). Scott filmed the ad in London, using actual skinheads playing the mute bald men—they were paid $125 a day to sit and stare at Big Brother; those who still had hair were paid to shave their heads for the shoot. Anya Major, a discus thrower and actress, was cast as the woman with the sledgehammer largely because she was actually capable of wielding the thing.

Mac programmer Andy Hertzfeld wrote an Apple II program "to flash impressive looking numbers and graphs on [Big Brother's] screen," but it's unclear whether his program was used for the final film. The ad cost a shocking $900,000 to film, plus Apple booked two premium slots during the Super Bowl to air it—carrying an airtime cost of more than $1 million.

WHAT EXECUTIVES AT APPLE THOUGHT

Although Jobs and his marketing team (plus the assembled throng at his 1983 internal presentation) loved the ad, Apple's Board of Directors hated it. After seeing the ad for the first time, board member Mike Markkula suggested that Chiat\Day be fired, and the remainder of the board were similarly unimpressed. Then-CEO John Sculley recalled the reaction after the ad was screened for the group: "The others just looked at each other, dazed expressions on their faces ... Most of them felt it was the worst commercial they had ever seen. Not a single outside board member liked it." Sculley instructed Chiat\Day to sell off the Super Bowl airtime they had purchased, but Chiat\Day principal Jay Chiat quietly resisted. Chiat had purchased two slots—a 60-second slot in the third quarter to show the full ad, plus a 30-second slot later on to repeat an edited-down version. Chiat sold only the 30-second slot and claimed it was too late to sell the longer one. By disobeying his client's instructions, Chiat cemented Apple's place in advertising history.

When Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak heard that the ad was in trouble, he offered to pony up half the airtime costs himself, saying, "I asked how much it was going to cost, and [Steve Jobs] told me $800,000. I said, 'Well, I'll pay half of it if you will.' I figured it was a problem with the company justifying the expenditure. I thought an ad that was so great a piece of science fiction should have its chance to be seen."

But Woz didn't have to shell out the money; the executive team finally decided to run a 100-day advertising extravaganza for the Mac's launch, starting with the Super Bowl ad—after all, they had already paid to shoot it and were stuck with the airtime.

1984 - Big Brother

WHAT EVERYBODY ELSE THOUGHT

When the ad aired, controversy erupted—viewers either loved or hated the ad, and it spurred a wave of media coverage that involved news shows replaying the ad as part of covering it, leading to estimates of an additional $5 million in "free" airtime for the ad. All three national networks, plus countless local markets, ran news stories about the ad. "1984" become a cultural event, and served as a blueprint for future Apple product launches. The marketing logic was brilliantly simple: create an ad campaign that sparked controversy (for example, by insinuating that IBM was like Big Brother), and the media will cover your launch for free, amplifying the message.

The full ad famously ran once during the Super Bowl XVIII (on January 22, 1984), but it also ran the month prior—on December 31, 1983, TV station operator Tom Frank ran the ad on KMVT at the last possible time slot before midnight, in order to qualify for 1983's advertising awards.* (Any awards the ad won would mean more media coverage.) Apple paid to screen the ad in movie theaters before movie trailers, further heightening anticipation for the Mac launch. In addition to all that, the 30-second version was aired across the country after its debut on the Super Bowl.

Chiat\Day adman Steve Hayden recalled: "We ran a 30- second version of '1984' in the top 10 U.S. markets, plus, in an admittedly childish move, in an 11th market—Boca Raton, Florida, headquarters for IBM's PC division." Mac team member Andy Hertzfeld ended his remembrance of the ad by saying:

"A week after the Macintosh launch, Apple held its January board meeting. The Macintosh executive staff was invited to attend, not knowing what to expect. When the Mac people entered the room, everyone on the board rose and gave them a standing ovation, acknowledging that they were wrong about the commercial and congratulating the team for pulling off a fantastic launch.

Chiat\Day wanted the commercial to qualify for upcoming advertising awards, so they ran it once at 1 AM at a small television station in Twin Falls, Idaho, KMVT, on December 15, 1983 [incorrect; see below for an update on this -ed]. And sure enough it won just about every possible award, including best commercial of the decade. Twenty years later it's considered one of the most memorable television commercials ever made."

THE AWFUL 1985 FOLLOW-UP

A year later, Apple again employed Chiat\Day to make a blockbuster ad for their Macintosh Office product line, which was basically a file server, networking gear, and a laser printer. Directed by Ridley Scott's brother Tony, the new ad was called "Lemmings," and featured blindfolded businesspeople whistling an out-of-tune version of Snow White's "Heigh-Ho" as they followed each other off a cliff (referencing the myth of lemming suicide).

Jobs and Sculley didn't like the ad, but Chiat\Day convinced them to run it, pointing out that the board hadn't liked the last ad either. But unlike the rousing, empowering message of the "1984" ad, "Lemmings" directly insulted business customers who had already bought IBM computers. It was also weirdly boring—when it was aired at the Super Bowl (with Jobs and Sculley in attendance), nobody really reacted. The ad was a flop, and Apple even proposed running a printed apology in The Wall Street Journal. Jay Chiat shot back, saying that if Apple apologized, Chiat would buy an ad on the next page, apologizing for the apology. It was a mess:

20-YEAR ANNIVERSARY

In 2004, the ad was updated for the launch of the iPod. The only change was that the woman with the hammer was now listening to an iPod, which remained clipped to her belt as she ran. You can watch that version too:

FURTHER READING

Chiat\Day adman Lee Clow gave an interview about the ad, covering some of this material.

Check out Mac team member Andy Hertzfeld's excellent first-person account of the ad. A similar account (but with more from Jobs's point of view) can found in the Steve Jobs biography, and an even more in-depth account is in The Mac Bathroom Reader. The Mac Bathroom Reader is out of print; you can read an excerpt online, including QuickTime movies of the two versions of the ad, plus a behind-the-scenes video. Finally, you might enjoy this 2004 USA Today article about the ad, pointing out that ads for other computers (including Atari, Radio Shack, and IBM's new PCjr) also ran during that Super Bowl.

* = A Note on the Airing in 1983

Update: Thanks to Tom Frank for writing in to correct my earlier mis-statement about the first air date of this commercial. As you can see in his comment below, Hertzfeld's comments above (and the dates cited in other accounts I've seen) are incorrect. Stay tuned for an upcoming interview with Frank, in which we discuss what it was like running both "1984" and "Lemmings" before they were on the Super Bowl!

Update 2: You can read the story behind this post in Chris's book The Blogger Abides.

This post originally appeared in 2012.

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