Elisa Nuevo Vallin: The ‘thumbs up’ gesture is based on a historical mistake

Posted on October 19, 2017



A long time ago I read a history article that was pretty impressive. I’ve since realised that few people know about this, so I would like to share it with you!

We accept that a thumbs-down gesture means boo, hiss, no, bad, wrong that sort of thing. The thumbs up means good, great, yes, OK, perfect. We agree? Great.

Back in history when gladiators fought, and the crowds cheered or booed they also used the thumbs up or thumbs down gesture to communicate with the gladiator.

You’d think that thumbs down would be used by the crowd to tell the gladiators to kill the person they were fighting with. However, I learned in that history article that it is the opposite, it’s the thumbs up gesture instead. No way, I hear you cry!

This is a misinterpretation that comes from the work of the French artist Léon Gérôme (see his painting here). The title of his painting was mistranslated from Latin to mean thumbs ‘turned down’ when in fact the title meant thumbs ‘turned up.’

In the painting, you can see a victorious gladiator standing over the lifeless body of his opponent while the crowd delivers a wave of down​turned thumbs!

The first line of the jeering crowds you can see the “Vestals”, always virgins, supporting the crowd gesture. Were they in favour of the human death?
What do you think?

Nowadays we fully understand that a thumbs-up gesture is a signal for approval, it is used often on this basis. It comes from the hand of Christianity: thumbs-up gesture pointing to heaven, this means the good and salvation, and a thumbs-down gesture pointing to hell.

So… keep this in mind the next time you give someone the “thumbs up” sign. Swords drawn anyone? 😀

Elisa was born and grew up in Santander, Spain until the last summer when she moved to London. She is a CODA and has a website and fanpage on Facebook where she uploads videos in Spanish Sign Language about her trips, recipes, culture, and the Deaf Community. She works for Deaf Umbrella as their Digital Campaigner.

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