Hands that carry information

Gestures for the deaf


Images taken from a children’s encyclopaedia, circa 1935. – a system not now in current use.

Hand gestures for divers


Gestures and meaning




Winston Churchill giving his famous V for Victory sign © TopFoto.co.uk

The V-sign stands for “Victory” – popularised by Sir Winston Churchill during World War 2. Believed to have emanated from Britain, ICONS fills us in on the origins of this sign:

“The nation’s favourite way of signalling to others that they could possibly find more constructive things to do than annoying us is a gesture dignified by history, if nothing else. An entertaining myth that it derived from English longbowmen showing the marauding French that they still had the use of their lethal drawing fingers has endured, but it is doubtless time to give it the two-fingered salute.

The rude V-sign is widely seen as a gesture of English defiance, supposedly originating in the longbow archers who fought in the 100 Years War against France. Captured archers often had their fingers mangled, so the sign was a means of telling your opponent that you were still capable of drawing a bow string back, as you still had two fingers!


Battle of Crecy, France, August 1346 © TopFoto.co.uk/HIP

The RUDE Version

In Britain, the V-sign – when done with the palm backwards – is a rude insult, meaning “Get Stuffed!” Although it is now losing ground to the American single finger, it is still seen from time to time. Recent two-finger saluters include deputy PM John Prescott, Liam Gallagher of Oasis and England striker, Wayne Rooney.

Liam Gallagher gestures at photographers  © TopFoto.co.uk

Liam Gallagher gestures at photographers © TopFoto.co.uk

The V-sign changes its meaning entirely if the hand is reversed, when it becomes the V for Victory with which, among other things, Sir Winston Churchill kept the country defiant in its darkest hour.

Internationally, the gesture has given ground to the American one-fingered salute when it comes to letting another person know that they have delighted us enough. As a symbol of pride, peace or determination to overcome insuperable odds, though, two fingers are still required. Just remember to get your hand the right way round, as Sir Winston often didn’t…”

The idea for this sign was said to have come from Victor De Lavelaye, a Belgian lawyer.

States ICONS “On January 4, 1941, Victor De Lavelaye, a Belgian refugee in Britain, made a BBC radio broadcast to his countrymen, in which he suggested a new way of striking at their Nazi occupiers:

“I am proposing to you as a rallying emblem the letter V, because V is the first letter of the words ‘Victoire’ in French, and ‘Vrijheid’ in Flemish: two things which go together, as Walloons and Flemings are at the moment marching hand in hand, two things which are the consequence one of the other, the Victory which will give us back our freedom, the Victory of our good friends the English. Their word for Victory also begins with V.”

Could De Lavelaye have got this idea from his own first name?

Beethoven’s Fifth

De Lavelaye’s campaign was taken up by the BBC, which began to broadcast the morse code for V (dot-dot-dot-dash), followed by the opening bars of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, whose notes correspond to the morse signal; “fifth” can also be written using the Roman numeral, V. These four notes would have an added significance for educated Germans, for Beethoven supposedly said that they represented the sound of “fate knocking on the door”.
People in Nazi-occupied territories were told to chalk Vs on walls, and to make the V signal whenever possible. Teachers could call children to order by clapping the signal, and train drivers could make it using their whistles. Every time someone knocked on a door or rang a church bell, they should use the rhythm of Victory. The campaign was planned to undermine German morale in the occupied territories. De Lavelaye explained, “The occupier, by seeing this sign, always the same, infinitely repeated, will understand that he is surrounded, encircled by an immense crowd of citizens eagerly awaiting his first moment of weakness, watching for his first failure.”

Such was the success of the campaign that the Germans tried to counter it with their own “V for Viktoria” project. They were too late, for the letter V was now understood across Europe as an anti-Nazi sign.

The Churchillian gesture

Winston Churchill took up the Victory campaign enthusiastically, and made a V sign with his fingers whenever a camera was pointed at him, his palm facing in both directions. This dismayed his private secretary, John Colville. In September 1941, Colville wrote in his diary, ”The PM will give the V-sign with two fingers in spite of representations repeatedly made to him that this gesture has quite another significance.”

Churchill was eventually persuaded to use only the palm forwards gesture.

Around the world

The V for Victory gesture is now understood and used worldwide. Following the first free elections in Iraq, in January 2005, Iraqi women leaving the polling stations were photographed making the sign triumphantly. The gesture is also made by Palestinians and Israelis, by American GIs in Iraq and Afghanistan and by those they fight against.

Iraqi woman with victory sign

Iraqi woman with victory sign

The Victory gesture can be made with palms facing in either direction, though the palm forwards sign is more common – perhaps due to the influence of Winston Churchill.”


About ranman

Design educator with a Masters of Design degree. 32 years of design experience. View all posts by ranman

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