January 23, 2005

American college totems

Bill Poser's observation about the Norwegian interpretation of the UT "Hook 'em Horns" signs is echoed by Lloyd Grove's remarks about its meaning in American Sign Language. The same hand configuration, sometimes [falsely] called mano cornuto, is used in parts of Italy for defense against the evil eye, or in other parts of Europe to insinuate cuckoldry. [Update 1/24/2005: see below.]

But when Bill refers to the University of Texas Longhorns as "a sports team", he's glossing the name incorrectly. The Longhorns can be any of a large number of teams, from football to baseball by way of basketball, tennis, softball, swimming and so on.

Like other such college totems, this nickname can also be used in a non-athletic context; thus the schedule for UT new student orientation points out that

Discussions take place the day of Gone to Texas and are a great way to start your Longhorn academic career in a one-time class (in or outside of your major area) with no tuition or tests!

Adam Smargon has compiled a "very long, but ... not exhaustive list" of such nicknames here. Like the Longhorns, many of these totems are animals (the Michigan Wolverines, the Wisconsin Badgers, the Irvine Anteaters, the College of the Atlantic Black Flies, the Santa Cruz Banana Slugs), but there are quite a few other categories, including religious figures (the Penn Quakers, the Wake Forest Demon Deacons, the Ohio Wesleyan Battling Bishops) and colors (the Harvard Crimson, the Syracuse Orange, the Dartmouth Big Green). The Stanford Cardinal is hermeneutically underdetermined -- it could be an animal or a religious figure or a color, though there is some local folk history that settles the matter for those in the know.

I don't think that schools in many other countries have totemic names (though Canada seems to share this aspect of American culture -- UBC student athletes seem to be Thunderbirds, for example. And I suppose that there may be a connection to things like the Oxford Blue in England).

And I don't know of any other handshape-based gestures indicating academic allegiance. The culture seems to be missing an opportunity here, as the Bush family demonstrated during the inauguration.

[Update: Nassira Nicola emails:

I read your Language Log post this morning, and I'm going to have to disagree with Lloyd Grove's interpretation of the Texas Longhorns salute in ASL. The sign BULLSHIT is a two-handed sign, where the non-dominant hand takes the same handshape as the Longhorns salute; the dominant hand forms a fist under the non-dominant elbow and opens and closes several times. If you look at the sign with an appropriately vulgar frame of mind, it looks like a rather iconic depiction of a bull defecating. Without the non-dominant hand, the sign means something like BULL**** - close enough to give ASL users the giggles, but not actually an obscenity in itself.

Actually, for what it's worth, the Texas Deaf community uses the Texas Longhorns Salute in ASL to mean - the Texas Longhorns.

This whole thing, incidentally, reminds me of the "gang signs" phenomenon; in the LA high school from which I graduated, students were asked to make sure their hands were visible and open in the senior picture to ensure that they weren't flashing "West Side" or "East Side" or whatnot. Not exactly a hand signal indicating academic allegiance, but definitely an indication of allegiance.

Yes, I thought of the "gang signs" business myself, but I don't know anything about it, and didn't have time to look it up, so I'm glad to have the reference -- and to have the mistake about ASL corrected! ]

[Update 1/24/2005: Stefano Taschini writes to point out that I've apparently been led astray by Wikipedia and other internet sites --

Regarding your post on "American College Totems" [1], I'd like to point out that "mano" is feminine in Italian (as in Spanish) and has always been feminine (cf. manus,-us, feminine noun of the fourth declination). The expression "mano cornuto" therefore strikes for its lack of gender agreement.

In Italy, this gesture is simply called "le corna" (the horns) and is apotropaic when the fingers lie horizontally or point down [2], and is an insult when the fingers point up. The graveness of the insult -- an innuendo of cuckoldry and, ultimately, little virility -- depends heavily on the context: kids use it rather innocently to make fun of other people posing for a picture [3], but flipping them to another car driver is a major offense.

[1] http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/001827.html
[2] Giovanni Leone, 1975, to contesters when visiting a hospital as President of the Republic. http://www.scudit.net/mdjella_file/cornaleone.jpg
[3] Silvio Berlusconi, 2002, in a group photo among the EU ministers of foreign affairs. http://www.repubblica.it/online/politica/gesto/gesto/ansa002a60c7cxw200h172c00.jpg

I read Italian and Spanish mainly by triangulating from Latin and French, but I still should have known the gender of mano. And here's case where the wisdom of internet crowds goes astray -- {"mano cornuto"} gets 787 Google hits, as opposed to 212 for {"mano cornuta"}.

Anyhow, between Nicola's correction and Stefano's, we have now learned that essentially all the linguistic information in the original post was incorrect. Consider this a formal apology. And as always, the Language Log marketing department stands ready to refund your subscription fees in full if you are less than completely satisfied. In cases of egregious error, like this one, we'll refund double your subscription fees.]


Posted by Mark Liberman at January 23, 2005 08:58 AM