The V sign is a hand gesture in which the index and middle fingers are raised and parted to make a V shape while the other fingers are clenched. It has various meanings, depending on the circumstances and how it is presented.
When displayed with the palm inward toward the signer, it can be an offensive gesture in some Commonwealth nations, dating back to at least 1900. The more widespread use as a victory sign ("V for Victory"), with the back of the hand toward the signer (U+270C ✌ VICTORY HAND in Unicode), was introduced in January 1941 as part of a campaign by the Allies of World War II. During the Vietnam War, in the 1960s, the "V sign" was widely adopted by the counterculture as a symbol of peace. Shortly thereafter, it also became a gesture associated with fun used in photographs, especially in East Asia, where the gesture is also associated with cuteness.
The meaning of the V sign is partially dependent on the manner in which the hand is positioned:
The insulting version of the gesture (with the palm inward U+1F594 🖔 REVERSED VICTORY HAND) is often compared to the offensive gesture known as "the finger". The "two-fingered salute" (also "the forks" in Australia) is commonly performed by flicking the V upwards from wrist or elbow. The V sign, when the palm is facing toward the person giving the sign, has long been an insulting gesture in the United Kingdom, and later in Ireland, Australia, South Africa, India, Pakistan and New Zealand. It is frequently used to signify defiance (especially to authority), contempt, or derision.
As an example of the V sign (palm inward) as an insult, on 1 November 1990, The Sun, a British tabloid, ran an article on its front page with the headline "Up Yours, Delors" next to a large hand making a V sign protruding from a Union Jack cuff. The Sun urged its readers to stick two fingers up at then President of the European Commission, Jacques Delors, who had advocated an EU central government. The article attracted a number of complaints about its alleged racism, but the now defunct Press Council rejected the complaints after the or of The Sun stated that the paper reserved the right to use vulgar abuse in the interests of Britain.
On 3 April 2009, Scottish association football players Barry Ferguson and Allan McGregor were permanently banned from the Scottish national squad for showing the V sign while sitting on the bench during the game against Iceland. Both players were in their hotel bar drinking alcohol after the Scottish defeat to The Netherlands until around 11 am the next morning, meaning that both of the players breached the SFA discipline code before the incident as well, but the attitude shown by the V sign was considered to be so rude that the SFA decided never to include these players in the national line-up again. Ferguson also lost the captaincy of Rangers as a result of the controversy. McGregor's ban was lifted by then SFA manager Craig Levein and he returned to Scotland national squad in 2010.
Steve McQueen gives the sign in the closing scene of the 1971 motorsport film, Le Mans. A still picture of the gesture was recorded by photographer Nigel Snowdon and has become an icon of both McQueen and the film itself. The gesture was also flashed by Spike (played by James Marsters) in "Hush", a Season 4 episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The scene was also featured in the series' opening crs for all of Season 5. It was censored by BBC Two only in its early-evening showings of the program.
For a time in the UK, "a Harvey (Smith)" became a way of describing the insulting version of the V sign, much as "the word of Cambronne" is used in France, or "the Trudeau salute" is used to describe the one-fingered salute in Canada. This happened because, in 1971, show-jumper Harvey Smith was disqualified for making a televised V sign to the judges after winning the British Show Jumping Derby at Hickstead. His win was reinstated two days later. Harvey Smith pleaded that he was using a Victory sign, a defence also used by other figures in the public eye.
Sometimes foreigners visiting the countries mentioned above use the "two-fingered salute" without knowing it is offensive to the natives, for example when ordering two beers in a noisy pub, or in the case of the United States president George H. W. Bush, who, while touring Australia in 1992, attempted to give a "peace sign" to a group of farmers in Canberra—who were protesting about U.S. farm subsidies—and instead gave the insulting V sign.
A commonly repeated legend claims that the two-fingered salute or V sign derives from a gesture made by longbowmen fighting in the English archers at the Battle of Agincourt (1415) during the Hundred Years' War, but no written historical primary sources support this contention. This origin legend states that English archers believed that those who were captured by the French had their index and middle fingers cut off so that they could no longer operate their longbows, and that the V sign was used by uncaptured and victorious archers in a display of defiance against the French. In conflict with this origin myth, the chronicler Jean de Wavrin, contemporary of the battle of Agincourt, reported that Henry V mentioned in a pre-battle speech that the French were said to be threatening to cut off three fingers (not two) from captured English bowmen. Wielding an English longbow is best done with three fingers. Neither Wavrin nor any contemporary author reported the threat was ever carried out after that nor other battles, nor did they report anything concerning a gesture of defiance.
The first unambiguous evidence of the use of the insulting V sign in the United Kingdom dates to 1901, when a worker outside Parkgate ironworks in Rotherham used the gesture (captured on the film) to indicate that he did not like being filmed.
Peter Opie interviewed children in the 1950s and observed in The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren (1959) that the much-older thumbing of the nose (cocking a snook) had been replaced by the V sign as the most common insulting gesture used in the playground.
Between 1975 and 1977, a group of anthropologists including Desmond Morris studied the history and spread of European gestures and found the rude version of the V-sign to be basically unknown outside the British Isles. In his Gestures: Their Origins and Distribution, published in 1979, Morris discussed various possible origins of this sign but came to no definite conclusion:
because of the strong taboo associated with the gesture (its public use has often been heavily penalised). As a result, there is a tendency to shy away from discussing it in detail. It is "known to be dirty" and is passed on from generation to generation by people who simply accept it as a recognised obscenity without bothering to analyse it... Several of the rival claims are equally appealing. The truth is that we will probably never know...
On 18 May 1939, the French daily, Le Monde Quotidien had a headline of, 'V pour victoire'. On 14 January 1941, Victor de Laveleye, former Belgian Minister of Justice and director of the Belgian French-language broadcasts on the BBC (1940–44), suggested in a broadcast that Belgians use a V for victoire (French: "victory") and vrijheid (Dutch: "freedom") as a rallying emblem during the Second World War.
In the BBC broadcast, de Laveleye said that "the occupier, by seeing this sign, always the same, infinitely repeated, [would] understand that he is surrounded, encircled by an immense crowd of citizens eagerly awaiting his first moment of weakness, watching for his first failure." Within weeks chalked up Vs began appearing on walls throughout Belgium, the Netherlands and Northern France. Buoyed by this success, the BBC started the "V for Victory" campaign, for which they put in charge the assistant news or Douglas Ritchie posing as "Colonel Britton". Ritchie suggested an audible V using its Morse code rhythm (three dots and a dash). As the rousing opening bars of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony had the same rhythm, the BBC used this as its call-sign in its foreign language programmes to occupied Europe for the rest of the war. The more musically educated also understood that it was the Fate motif "knocking on the door" of the German Third Reich. (Listen to this call-sign. (help·info)). The BBC also encouraged the use of the V gesture introduced by de Laveleye.
By July 1941, the emblematic use of the letter V had spread through occupied Europe. On 19 July, Prime Minister Winston Churchill referred approvingly to the V for Victory campaign in a speech, from which point he started using the V hand sign. Early on he sometimes gestured palm in (sometimes with a cigar between the fingers). Later in the war, he used palm out. After aides explained to the aristocratic Churchill what the palm in gesture meant to other classes, he made sure to use the appropriate sign. Yet the double-entendre of the gesture might have contributed to its popularity, "for a simple twist of hand would have presented the dorsal side in a mocking snub to the common enemy". Other allied leaders used the sign as well.
The Germans could not remove all the signs, so they adopted the V Sign as a German symbol, sometimes adding laurel leaves under it, painting their own V's on walls, vehicles and adding a massive V on the Eiffel Tower.
Resistance graffiti on a Norwegian road, depicting the V-sign and the royal cipher of King Haakon VII.
The V-sign (and its Morse code equivalent) incorporated on an American propaganda poster for the War Production Board, 1942 or 1943.
During the German occupation of Jersey, a stonemason repairing the paving of the Royal Square incorporated a V for victory under the noses of the occupiers. This was later amended to refer to the Red Cross ship Vega. The addition of the date 1945 and a more recent frame has transformed it into a monument.
In 1942, Aleister Crowley, a British occultist, claimed to have invented the usage of a V-sign in February 1941 as a magical foil to the Nazis' use of the swastika. He maintained that he passed this to friends at the BBC, and to the British Naval Intelligence Division through his connections in MI5, eventually gaining the approval of Winston Churchill. Crowley noted that his 1913 publication Magick (Book 4) featured a V-sign and a swastika on the same plate.
U.S. President Richard Nixon used the gesture to signal victory in the Vietnam War, an act which became one of his best-known trademarks. He also used it on his departure from public office following his resignation in 1974.
Protesters against the Vietnam War (and subsequent anti-war protests) and counterculture activists in the 1960s adopted the gesture as a sign of peace. Because the hippies of the day often flashed this sign (palm out) while saying "Peace", it became popularly known (through association) as "the peace sign".
The V sign, primarily palm-outward, is very commonly made by Japanese people, especially younger people, when posing for informal photographs, and is known as pīsu sain (ピースサイン, peace sign), or more commonly simply pīsu (ピース, peace). As the name reflects, this dates to the Vietnam War era and anti-war activists, though the precise origin is disputed. The V sign was known in Japan from the post-World War II Allied occupation of Japan, but did not acquire the use in photographs until later.
In Japan, it is generally believed to have been influenced by Beheiren's anti-Vietnam War activists in the late 1960s and a Konica camera advertisement in 1971. A more colorful account of this practice claims it was influenced by the American figure skater Janet Lynn during the 1972 Winter Olympics in Sapporo, Hokkaidō. She fell during a free-skate period, but continued to smile even as she sat on the ice. Though she placed third in the competition, her cheerful diligence and persistence resonated with many Japanese viewers. Lynn became an overnight foreign celebrity in Japan. A peace activist, Lynn frequently flashed the V sign when she was covered in Japanese media, and she is cred by some Japanese for having popularized its use since the 1970s in amateur photographs.
In China, South Korea and Taiwan, the V sign is a popular pose in photographs. It is used in both casual and formal settings. For the most part in these countries, the gesture is divorced from its previous meanings as a peace sign or as an insult; for most the meaning of the sign is "victory" or "yeah", implying a feeling of happiness. It is used in both directions (palm facing the signer and palm facing forward).
The pose is gaining significant popularity in South Korea due to the common usage amongst Kpop idols and young people – especially in selfies. V signing is commonly linked with aegyo, a popular trend in Korea meaning "acting cutely". It can also be placed in front of a cheek to make the cheek look slimmer, but open hand with palm against the face is more common.
In the United States, the usage of the V sign as a photography gesture is known but not widely used. The original poster for the 2003 film What a Girl Wants showed star Amanda Bynes giving a V sign as an American girl visiting London. In the US, the poster was altered to instead show Bynes with both arms down, to avoid giving the perception that the film was criticizing the then-recently commenced Iraq War.
In addition to the risks due to different interpretations of the V-sign in different cultures, it has been suggested that fairly close photographs of palm-out V-signs may be a security risk, as people's fingerprints can be clearly identified, allowing misuse. At a distance of 1.5m or less, 100% of a fingerprint can be captured, and 50% at up to 3m. Criminals could copy the fingerprint to use with door-access and payment systems. Sufficiently detailed fingerprint information could only be harvested in "very demanding" conditions; to check that a V-sign photograph is not a security risk, it could be examined at high zoom.
Singer Rihanna using the V sign, 2011.
Subtle gestures, noise, and artwork are additional symbolic signs that dissidents use in coercive countries. Poland's Solidarity's signal was two fingers held up in the form of the letter V. This gesture diffused widely in Eastern Europe and now it is used in Palestine as a symbol of unity and nationalism.
Tadeusz Mazowlecki, who nearly fainted during his opening speech, flashed a V-for-victory sign as deputies voted his Cabinet into office by 402–0 with 13 abstentions.
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