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OK (gesture)

The gesture

The OK or ring gesture (Unicode symbol U+1F44C "👌") is performed by connecting the thumb and index finger into a circle, and holding the other fingers straight or relaxed away from the palm. Commonly used by divers, it signifies "I am OK" or "Are you OK?" when underwater. In most English-speaking countries it denotes approval, agreement, and that all is well or "okay". In other contexts or cultures, this same gesture may have different meanings or connotations, including many that are negative, offensive, financial, numerical, devotional, or purely linguistic.

Positive connotations

Classical usage

Buddha statue in Thailand depicting the gesture asVitarka Mudrā

Ring gestures, formed by forefinger and thumb with remaining digits extended, appear in Greece at least as early as the fifth century B.C.E., and can be seen on painted vases as an expression of love, with thumb and forefinger mimicking kissing lips. When proffered by one person toward another in Ancient Greece, the gesture was of one professing their love for another, and the sentiment was conveyed more in the touching of fingertips than in the ring that they formed.[1] As an expression of assent and approval, the gesture can be traced back to first century Rome where the rhetorician Quintilian is recorded as having used it.[2] Quintilian's chironomy prescribed variations in context for the gesture's use during specific points of a speech: to open, give warning or praise or accusation, and then to close a declamation.[1]

Contemporaneously the sign appeared throughout the Buddhist and Hindu diasporas as a symbol of inner perfection. Ethologist Desmond Morris posits that the joined thumb-and-forefinger communicates precision in grasping something literally or figuratively, and that the shape formed by their union represents the epitome of perfection—a circle—hence the gesture's transcultural message that things are "exactly right" or "perfect."[3]

In Naples the gesture has been long used to symbolize love and matrimony, as was custom in neighboring Greece, but specifically with the palm upturned, while the gesture made with a downturned palm represents a hand holding the scales of justice.[1][4] Across Italy the gesture remained in use as one for making points in conversation when moved about to express discursive precision, but when held still in an upright position with fingers jutting skyward, it became an emblem of perfection.[1]


Caricature of Uncle Sam making the "OK" gesture in a cartoon for the 1900 Paris Exposition

By the early 19th century in the United States, the gesture was affiliated with the letters "O" (formed by the circle) and "K" (derived from the extended fingers). While it is not known exactly how the OK gesture and the corresponding verbal expression coalesced, linguist Allan Metcalf dates the expression's rise in usage to an 1839 humor piece in the Boston Morning Post describing the expression "O.K." as meaning "orl korrek" (imitating an immigrant pronunciation of "all correct") at a time when acronyms for misspelled words were in vogue.[5] Several other broadsheets in Boston, New York and Philadelphia ran with the expression in their own columns, bringing the phrase into the vernacular of American English.[6] The following year Democrats took to using the phrase and its accompanying gesture in support of president Martin Van Buren's campaign for reelection. A native of Kinderhook, New York, Van Buren was widely known by his nickname, “Old Kinderhook”, whose initials, "O.K.," were steadily gaining traction as an expression of approval.[7] In New York City, fans of Van Buren formed the O.K. Democratic Club and used the gesture as its sign, with the slogan of "O.K." bearing the double meaning in the club's catchphrase, "Old Kinderhook is all correct.",[6] Both phrase and gesture made their way into newspapers around the country via political cartoons, thus further spreading the expression. After Van Buren's defeat to William Henry Harrison, O.K. was briefly satirized as meaning "Ofrul Kalamity" or "Orful Katastrophe."[8]

Despite Van Buren's loss and the subsequent dissolution of the O.K. Democratic Club, the gesture has since been widely used since to mean "all is well" or "good" in the United States.[9][10] As a gesture, its connotation is more positive than the word "OK," which may mean a thing is merely satisfactory or mediocre, as in, "The food was OK." The gesture is commonly understood as a signal of approval,[7] and is sometimes used synonymously with the Western "thumbs up" gesture.

Underwater diving

Diver's signal meaning "Everything OK," used both as a question and as a response to that question.

In the communication used by scuba divers, the OK sign is specific in its meaning that "everything is OK" as regulated by the Recreational Scuba Training Council. Divers are taught to always use this sign and not the thumbs up gesture because the latter means that a diver needs to ascend.[11] The gesture is also used as a means of checking in, with one diver using it to ask another, "Everything OK?" and the response meaning, "Yes, everything is OK."

At distances where the standard OK gesture may be hard to see, divers use larger signals as an alternative, either with one hand atop the head and the elbow bent out to the side, or both hands touching above the head so that the arms form an "O" for "OK".[12] This full-body gesture is also used as "OK" in Japan where the single-handed gesture takes on a different meaning.[13] It was added to Unicode in 2010 under the name “Face With OK Gesture” (U+1F646 "🙆") and became part of Emoji 1.0 in 2015.[14]


Illustration from an 1880s account of gestures used in Mexico.

In Japan the one-handed ring gesture is used to symbolize money,[15] and in this context the fingers' circular shape represents a coin.[3] Sometimes the sign is used to avoid the verbal awkwardness in talking about or asking for money.[16] In other contexts, it can be used to imply a bribe or other illicit financial transactions,[17][18] or signal an invitation to enter into business negotiations.[19]

In other parts of the world the gesture can also express money, financial transactions, wealth or the priciness of an item. Records of the gesture being used to remark on a person's wealth or status are documented as practiced in Mexico during the late 19th century.[20]


A similar gesture, the Vitarka mudra ("mudra of discussion") is the gesture of discussion and communication (for the number 0) of Buddhist teaching.[21]

In yoga the gesture is known as chin mudra ("the seal of consciousness") when the palm is face down, or jnana mudra ("the seal of wisdom") when the palm is face up or held in other positions. Some schools of yoga use chin and jnana mudra interchangeably, while others claim that "the former produces a subtle feeling of rootedness, the latter a sense of lightness,"[22] or that jnana "the passive receiving position" while chin "is an actively giving position."[23] In these mudras the middle, ring, and pinky fingers represent the three gunas of rajas, tamas, and sattva which, when in harmony, unite individual and universal consciousness. The pressing together of the thumb and forefinger represents that union—or "yoga"—of consciousness.[22]

Negative connotations

Cultural contexts

While widespread use of the OK gesture has granted it an international connotation of assent, it also bears negative, vulgar, or offensive meanings in many regions of the world.[24] In contrast to Japan's use of the expression to represent coins and wealth, the gesture's "O" shape stands for "zero" meaning "worth nothing" in France, Belgium, and Tunisia.[18][25] In many Mediterranean countries such as Turkey, Tunisia, and Greece, as well as in the Middle East, parts of Germany, and several South American countries, the gesture may be interpreted as a vulgar expression resembling a human anus, either as an insult ("You are an asshole"), or an offensive reference to homosexuality and the act of sodomy.[7] In Brazil it can be synonymous with giving someone the middle finger.[26][27]

In the Arab world, this sign represents the evil eye, and is used as a curse, sometimes in conjunction with verbal condemnation.[28]

In some regions of the world both the positive "OK" and the negative forms are practiced, which can lead to confusion over which meaning is intended.[7] In regions and cultures where the gesture has a historically negative connotation, its use as an "OK sign" is often the result of its appearance in media and tends to be used more by younger people.[29] In France, where widespread use has seeped in through American culture, the gesture's positive "OK" sentiment became popular in the north of the country while its negative connotation as "worthless" remained in the south. To avoid confusion, French speakers have become accustomed to using additional context clues, such as posture or facial expression, to clarify meaning.[3]

'Circle Game' prank

"The Circle" positioned below the waistline as it appears in The Circle Game.

Since the 1980s the OK gesture has been the key feature of the popular school prank, "the circle game." The one initiating the game makes the gesture below the waistline and then tries to trick an opponent into looking at it. If the person looks at it, the maker of the gesture punches the opponent in the arm.[30]

As white power symbol

Beginning in 2017, the gesture was at the center of an online prank in alt-right and white supremacist meme culture that originated from the anonymous message board 4chan.[31] The Boston Globe reported that users on 4chan's Politically Incorrect board were instructed in February 2017 to "flood Twitter and other social media websites...claiming that the OK hand sign is a symbol of white supremacy,” as part of a campaign dubbed "Operation O-KKK."[32] The supposed association of the gesture with white supremacy derives from the assertion that the three upheld fingers resemble a 'W' and the circle made with the thumb and forefinger resemble the head of a 'P,' together standing for "white power."[citation needed] While some members of the alt-right used the symbol after the launch of the 4chan campaign, it remains ambiguous whether or not it was being used to communicate genuine adherence to white supremacy, or with deliberately ironic motives.[33] In May 2017 the Anti-Defamation League published an article asking:

Has the simple thumb-and-forefinger 'OK' hand gesture become a common white supremacist hand sign? Not quite, but it has become a popular gesture used by people across several segments of the right and far right—including some actual white supremacists—who generally use it to trigger reactions. [...] Only if the gesture occurs in context with other clear indicators of white supremacy can one draw that conclusion.[34]

By 2018, a number of people were accused of signaling support for white supremacist ideology in publicly displaying the gesture.[32][35][36][37] For example, in September 2018 the U.S. Coast Guard disciplined an employee who flashed the symbol on camera in the background of a newscast.[38][39]

Other connotations


The letter F in the American manual alphabet

In deaf culture, the sign of joined thumb and forefinger takes on various letters in different systems of fingerspelling. The American manual alphabet of American Sign Language (ASL) reserves it for the letter F, while in both Irish and French Sign Language it is the letter G.[40] In fingerspellings that represent Cyrillic alphabetical systems, such as the Ukrainian manual alphabet, the gesture represents the vowel O and reflects that letter's shape.[41] Similarly, the Korean manual alphabet uses the gesture for the Hangul letter "", romanized as "ng" to reflect its pronunciation in spoken Korean.[42] In yubimoji (指文字 ), Japan's manual syllabary whose 45 signs and four diacritics represent the phonemes of the Japanese language, the gesture is the syllable "me" (め in hiragana, メ in katakana).[43] Various fingerspelling systems may call for other specific features of the gesture beyond its joined thumb-and-forefinger with remaining fingers entended. For example, the ring in yubimoji's "me" gesture is slightly tapered rather than rounded. [44]

Sign languages

1880 drawing of person displaying the sign for "sun" in Plains Indian Sign Language.

Dating back to the tenth century C.E. in Europe, the gesture of thumb and forefinger forming a ring with the remaining fingers extended was used in a set of standardized ecclesiastical signs employed by Christian monks under vows of silence to represent numerous religious rites and objects.[45] Likewise, in modern-day ASL, the gesture can mean many different things depending on how it is applied. The pinching action of the thumb-and-forefinger frequently represent something small. For example, the sign for housefly is made by making the gesture mimic a fly buzzing around.[46]

In North American Plains Indian Sign Language, the gesture signifies the sun when held up in front of the face or moved in an arc following the sun's track. When held up to the sky and peered through, it is the sign for high noon.[47] A more complicated series of movements with hands held in the gesture as if drawing a thread or stretching an elastic can signify death, or more specifically, "After a long time, you die."[48]

In ASL the gesture also often connotes a selection of some sort. When moved from one side to the other as if picking something up and placing it down, it means "appoint." When the joined thumb and forefinger of the gesture are placed into a hole made by the opposite hand, it means "vote." The sign for "elect" is formed by making the signs for "vote" and "appoint" in succession.[49]


One version of "three" in Chinese number gestures.

In American Sign Language the OK gesture represents the number nine when held in a stationary position with the palm facing away from the signer. This ASL numerical sign is the last in a sequence of single-digit integers where quantities of fingers denote the numbers one through five, and then the thumb touches each finger in turn to denote six (pinky finger), seven (ring finger), eight (middle finger), and finally nine (index finger). When shaken from left to right the sign for the number nine becomes the number 19.[50]

In Plains Indian Sign Language the gesture signifies the number three when held a bit lower than the signs used to represent the sun.[48] Regional forms of finger counting used in China also employ the raised middle, ring and pinky fingers to express the number three, either with thumb and index fingers joined as they are in the OK gesture or in a similar configuration.[51] This number gesture is primarily used in China's southern provinces, while in the north "three" may also be expressed by the raised index, middle and ring fingers as it is in English-speaking countries.[52] Both methods are distinct from having the thumb, index and middle fingers extended as is used to denote "three" in much of mainland Europe,[53] because this represents the number eight in both Taiwan and parts of mainland China.[54]

Greco-Roman chironomia also included a counting system in which the ring gesture stood for either 10, 30, 100 or 300, the exact number being determined by which hand was used and the exact point of contact between thumb and forefinger.[4]

Political affiliations

The United Macedonia Salute mirroring the Vergina Sun flag in the background

In Europe's Balkan region the OK gesture is associated with campaigns for a United Macedonia. For Macedonian nationalists the two fingers forming the "O" stand for the Macedonian word Обединета (Obedineta, meaning “United”) and the other three fingers symbolize the regions of Aegean Macedonia in northern Greece, Pirin Macedonia in southwestern Bulgaria, and the region of Vardar Macedonia that roughly corresponds to the Republic of Macedonia's 21st century borders. Taken together, the United Macedonia Salute also resembles the Vergina Sun that was the royal symbol of Ancient Macedonia. Both Sun and Salute became popular among Macedonian Greeks in the 1980s, and the Sun appeared on the Macedonian flag after the Republic of Macedonia declared independence from Yugoslavia in 1992. Three years later Macedonia changed their flag under economic pressure from Greece who saw the use of the Vergina Sun as a threat against Greek sovereignty. The United Macedonia Salute remains controversial among many people in the Balkan region, especially those living within parts of Greece or Bulgaria that Macedonian nationalists wish to claim as provinces for the Republic.[55]


The gesture has been known as "the feminine hand" and was once associated with female genitalia.[56] It has also been used to represent the number 666 as the "Number of the Beast" with the three sixes all sharing the circle formed by the index finger and thumb while the other three fingers form their individual ascenders.[57] In Satanism the three fingers also represent the three aspects of the "Unholy Trinity" of the Sun God Lucifer, the Mother Goddess, and their offspring, the Antichrist. In Freemasonry the hand sign also signifies the deity of the sun and the Masonic pursuit for light.[58]

Medical testing

The gesture is used by doctors to test functionality of the anterior interosseous nerve and seek indications of median nerve palsy in the hands. A patient makes the OK gesture with both hands. If the circle formed by one hand appears more pinched or less round than the other, it may indicate weakness in the nerve.[59][60]

A similar test, known as Froment's sign, is used to test for palsy on the ulnar nerve. To perform the test, a patient holds piece of paper between their forefinger and thumb, and the examiner attempts to pull it out of the patient's grip.[61] If ulnar nerve palsy is present, the patient will have difficulty maintaining their hold and may compensate by flexing the thumb to add more pressure.[62]

See also


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External links