Globalization: Social & Geographic Perspectives

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The Creolization of the “V Sign”

March 8th, 2011 · 3 Comments
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Creolization of the “V Sign”

When I first decided to research the creolization of the “V sign” (sign made when one holds up their index and middle fingers creating a V), I first searched for “peace sign”.  To my surprise, only the peace sign symbol came up.  I couldn’t figure out why there was no mention of the hand signal for peace.  As I continued to research, I came across the term “V sign”.  I quickly learned that the V sign is not necessarily a peace sign.

The V sign originated long ago.  Decades ago, the British archers used these two fingers to shoot their arrows.  The arrow was placed between these two fingers.  The archer would then aim and release the arrow.  When an archer was captured by their enemy, the enemy would cut off these two fingers.  This was considered even worse than killing the enemy.  Archers would flaunt this V sign to their enemies to show that they still had their two fingers.  The V sign is said to have been first used during this time, dating back to around 1415

Winston Churchill is credited for making the V sign popular today.  During WWII he flashed the V sign with his palm facing out.  Churchill used this sign as a sign of victory.  There was even a campaigned called the “V Campaign” used to unite the British.  Quickly, other countries adopted the V sign.  United States President, Richard Nixon, used the V sign as a sign of victory during the Vietnam War.  Nixon also became popular for using the sign.

The V sign may have originated as a sign of victory, however, it quickly adopted different meanings.  At the same time that Nixon was flashing the V sign as a sign of victory, hippies in the United States started flashing the sign while saying “peace”.  The V sign then became a sign of peace.  It is ironic how the same sign could mean victory and peace during in the same country during the same time period. 

In Japan, the V sign is very popular.  The Japanese are often shown flashing the V sign in photographs.  It is almost like saying “cheese” here in America.  The V sign became very popular in Japan when an American figure skater, Janet Lynn, fell during the Olympics.  She did not show her disappointment.  Instead she got up, continued to skate and smiled.  The Japanese admired Lynn’s poise.  She was often shown flashing the V sign which the Japanese adopted and made popular.

As the V sign traveled across different countries, it adopted various meanings.  It is important to know what some of these various meanings are when traveling.  Even former President George Bush got himself into trouble because he was unaware of what the V sign meant in Australia.  Bush flashed the V sign with the back of his hand facing the people.  While Bush intended for the sign to mean victory, it was not interpreted that way.  In Australia, this sign is the equivalent to the middle finger here in the United States!

Below is a list of what this sign means in various countries.  Keep in mind that the sign may hold different meanings depending on whether or not your hand is facing outward (palm facing people) or inward (palm facing speaker).

Australia:  outward: two beers please, peace or victory   inward:  F*** You!

China: outward: often flashed when having ones picture taken   inward: not used

Germany:  outward: rarely used as peace   inward: vulgar insult

Greece: outward: peace   inward: two

Ireland:  outward: peace     inward: F*** You

Russia:  outward/ inward: understood as victory (picked up in Western films) but rarely used

Spain: outward/ inward: victory

USA:  outward:  peace (how a hippy would signal it)  inward: peace (more of a hip hop way to flash the sign)

It was astonishing how different such a simple sign could be interpreted in different countries.  As the sign was adopted by different countries its meaning was drastically altered.  It is also interesting how differently the sign is interpretted in the same country by just facing the sign inwards or outwards.  With just a flick of the wrist, one could go from being friendly (peace sign), to cursing someone out!  I will always think twice before flashing the peace sign when traveling.

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3 responses so far ↓

  • 1    Prof. Hala // Mar 13, 2011 at 12:40 pm

    This is FANTASTIC, Brenda! I think I’ll be using this example when I teach on the topic of creolization in the future. It’s ideal (I can’t believe you were second-guessing the choice).

    I learned so much from your piece. I had no idea about the archer story. And I’m amazed that the ubiquity of the gesture in photos of Japanese youth can be traced back to an American figure skater!

    The variations on meaning in different places depending on whether the hand faces outward or inward is fascinating. Like in the US, this difference evokes two different cultures — hippie vs hip hop. Now I’d love to learn more about how this sign was borrowed and modified by rappers, like when and how it all started.

    The Nixon case is especially interesting because he made the sign using *both hands.* In American culture today, the gesture of V-signs using both hands is almost universally recognized as “Nixonian,” as imitating former US President Richard Nixon (“I am not a crook.”).

  • 2    jasmina786 // Mar 14, 2011 at 12:20 am

    I am impressed by this V-sign and will also think the same whenever I travel aboard or ask a foreigner to take a picture without flashing the V-sign. I find this essay unique and different by its history content and how various countries look differently towards hand V signs. It is something I have not noticed but you have pointed it really well. Interesting read!

  • 3    temimahz // Mar 15, 2011 at 7:17 pm

    I really enjoyed this example of creolization especially since like you, I’ve always just thought of it as meaning “peace.” I really liked learning not only about where the V sign originated, but how it has spread to SO MANY different cultures, each embracing it with their own meaning. Who knows what it will represent next!

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