People who've never watched an episode of Siskel and Ebert know that "two thumbs way up" indicates the ultimate expression of approval for a movie. It's such a well-known trope, in fact, that Urban Dictionary defines thumbs up as "the final affirmation," and the Kevin Smith movie Dogma poses its "Buddy Christ" figure with two thumbs up (was this a not-so-subliminal message to inspire Roger Ebert to give it a glowing review?).
In most Western countries today, giving somebody the thumbs up sign indicates approval. Just look at Facebook and its ubiquitous "Like" button. Of course, the gesture means a variety of things, even in the Western world. It can mean, "Hey buddy, can I have a lift?" if you're standing on the side of the road. It might mean, "Ready to head back up!" if you're scuba diving. So many meanings; not all are good.
Thumbs Up: The Origin Story
If your knowledge of Roman history begins and ends with the movie Gladiator, you probably have no idea what thumbs up meant during the gladiatorial games in ancient Rome, because that movie fluffs it entirely. To be fair, though, they fluffed it on purpose, as they knew common perception is that thumbs up is a good thing, whereas thumbs down is negative.
In reality, though, gladiators lived or died by the whims of the editor's thumb; the meaning of each position was opposite to today's meaning. A closed fist indicated the decision to spare the gladiator's life. Some sources claim a thumbs down signal indicated sparing a gladiator's life, but most adhere to the "hidden" thumb of a closed fist.
In Third Satire, Decimus Junius Juvenalis (commonly called Juvenal) writes:
These men were once horn-blowers and attendants
At every municipal arena, known as trumpeters in every village.
Now they present their own spectacles, and, to win applause,
Kill whomever the mob gives the "thumbs up.
So, what did thumbs up mean to a gladiator? Death, of course. How did the meanings become so confused? Simple: art. Before film arrived on the scene to distort reality, painters held that job; in this case, an 1872 masterpiece by Jean- Léon Gérôme titled Pollice Verso.
In the painting, a gladiator stands over the dead body of his opponent, while the crowd enthusiastically displays dozens of downturned thumbs. No one can explain the anomaly, though, since this was a painter renowned for his attention to detail and historical accuracy.
Ironically, this reputation is credited with why thumbs down quickly became associated with disapproval and thumbs up with approval.
We jump ahead 1,800 years from the time of Juvenal, but only around 50 from the time of Jean- Léon Gérôme, to the early era of the automobile. One of the earliest mentions of hitchhiking occurred in 1916, when a poet named Vachel Lindsay wrote about hitchhiking. It seems that starving writers have needed gas money for 100 years.
Through the early 1920s, newspapers and magazines wrote stories about hitchhikers, with a 1925 article in The American Magazine first describing the sight of a hitchhiker with his thumb in the air. In this instance, it meant neither approval nor disapproval, but rather, "Hey, I'm going this way. If you are, too, maybe we can go together?"
The 1934 film It Happened One Night settled the hitchhiking question once and for all, though. In the movie, Clark Gable explains the proper "thumb" motion for a hitchhiker to ensure he receives a ride. Claudette Colbert proves that no matter how perfect your thumbing technique is, it'll never compete with an attractive woman flashing a bit of leg.
WWII Pilots and Pop Culture
Jumping ahead to WWII, American pilots began using the thumbs up as a signal that they were ready to take off. Most people think this originated with the Chinese, actually, since at the same time, a thumbs up in China meant pretty much what it does today in America: good job.
The gesture just kind of hung out in the background after that. Until, of course, the TV show Happy Days brought it back, thanks to the insanely popular character Fonzie and his habit of making the thumbs up sign while saying "Aaaaayyyy." The '70s were a weird time.
How to Cause an International Incident Using Only Your Thumb
Nothing is universal. A peace sign in America is another way to flip someone the bird in England, depending on which way your hand faces. The thumbs up sign is no different. In Australia, Greece, parts of Italy, and just about all of the Middle East, a thumbs up is just another way to say, "Up yours, buddy!"
You can also get into trouble just counting. Germans and Hungarians, for example, begin counting with the thumb. This means that, instead of holding up their index finger to indicate the number one, they use their thumb. In China, though, the thumb indicates the number five. Keep that in mind when drafting treaties or any other official document where numbers matter.
What It Means at STU Media
Vice had a series called Thumbs Up! It follows two cousins, David and Harry, as they hitchhike their way across the United States in series one, and then a lot further in series two and three. The show inspired me to name my own content service Solid Thumbs Up. It's a long way from gladiators.
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