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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 in the air. Commonly used by divers, it signifies "I am OK" or "Are you OK" when underwater. It has been used in this context for some time. In the United States it denotes approval, agreement, 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, or devotional.
Though it is not known whether the OK gesture is derived from the verbal expression, or if the gesture appeared first, it gained popularity in United States in 1836 as a symbol of support for then Presidential candidate Martin Van Buren, whose nickname, Old Kinderhook, had the initials "O.K." The gesture has been widely used since to mean "all is well" or "good" in the United States. 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, and is sometimes used synonymously with the Western "thumbs up" gesture.
In the nonverbal 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. The gesture is also used as a means of checking in, with one diver using it 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".
In Japan the gesture is used to symbolize money. Sometimes the sign is used to avoid the verbal awkwardness in talking about or asking for money. In other contexts, it can be used to imply a bribe or other illicit financial transactions.
A similar gesture, the Vitarka mudra ("mudra of discussion") is the gesture of discussion and communication (for the number 0) of Buddhist teaching. 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 subtle feeling of rootedness, the latter a sense of lightness." 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.
While the gesture is not positive in some countries, in certain parts of middle and southern Europe (although not in Spain or Portugal) the gesture is considered offensive. The connotation of zero or worthless is known in France and Belgium, while in some Mediterranean countries such as Turkey, Tunisia, and Greece, in the Middle East, as well as in parts of Brazil and Germany, and several South American countries, it may be interpreted as a vulgar expression: either an insult (you are an asshole), the slang for anus itself, or an offensive reference to homosexuality.
In some areas both the positive "OK" and the negative forms are practiced, which can lead to confusion over which meaning is intended.
Since the 1980s the OK gesture has been the key feature of the popular school prank, "the circle game." Those playing the game make the gesture below the waistline and then try to trick other into looking at it. The maker of the gesture then punches a person who looks at it, unless that person can break the circle with their own index finger.
In 2017 the gesture was used in an online prank to troll the political left in the United States. The Boston Globe reported that users on 4chan's Politically Incorrect channel were instructed 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." Reports of this specific usage of the "OK" sign as a white power symbol traced its origins to a prank on the website 4chan. While some members of the white nationalist alt-right movement used the symbol after the launch of the 4chan campaign, there was no evidence as to whether or not it was being used to communicate adherence to white nationalism, or simply as a sign of approval as the sign has been used for decades. Later that year the Anti-Defamation League released a statement that the OK gesture was not, in fact, a white supremacist hand sign. Nevertheless, by 2018, people in law enforcement, the military, and politics were coming under fire for displaying it, and the online humanist site Areo Magazine called the phenomenon a "moral panic."
In deaf culture, the sign of joined thumb and forefinger takes on various letters in different systems of fingerspelling. American Sign Language (ASL) reserves it for the letter F, while in both Irish and French Sign Language it is the letter G.
Dating back to the tenth century C.E., the gesture of thumb and forefinger forming a ring with the remaining fingers extended was used in a set of standardized signs employed by monks under vows of silence to represent numerous religious rites and objects. 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.
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.
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. When held a bit lower it signifies the number three. 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."
The gesture has been known as "the feminine hand" and was once associated with female genitalia. 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. 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.
The origins of using the “OK” hand gesture as a symbol of white supremacy can be traced back to a 2017 troll campaign on the popular 4chan board “/pol/ — Politically Incorrect,” an effort aimed at inciting outrage on the part of liberals and media.