January 23, 2005

Academic gestures in the Southwest (Conference)

Boy, was I wrong. Or more precisely, ignorant. In my post this morning on the mano cornuta (or "Hook 'em Horns") sign, I wrote that "I don't know of any other handshape-based gestures indicating academic allegiance. The culture seems to be missing an opportunity here". By the time I got back from shoveling out my wife's driveway, I had email from Bill Shirley ("4th generation Longhorn, BS Computer Science 1990") informing me that "Many schools in the (now defunct) Southwest Conference have hand signs", and pointing me an article by Paul Burka on the Texas Monthly site entitled "Football Hand Signals". Burka explains that

Of the nine SWC schools, more have hand signs (seven) than NCAA investigations (six). For that matter, one school, SMU, has more hand signs than football teams.

And apparently there is an eighth sign, unsanctioned because Rice University officials "[suspect] that a middle finger poked outward has a meaning other than 'peck 'em, Owls'".

Burka gives histories for the other signs, for example this explanation of the first one:

Blame it all on an Aggie named Pinky Downs. A 1906 Texas A&M graduate, Downs was a member of the shcool's board of regents from 1923 to 1933. He was the kind of Aggie who wore a maroon tie every day and who prodded the school into spending an extra $10,000 so that its new swimming pool would be longer than the one at the University of Texas. When the Aggies had a yell practice before the 1930 TCU game, Downs naturally was there. "What are we going to do the those Horned Frogs?" he shouted. His muse did not fail him. "Gig 'em, Aggies!" he improvised, appropriating a term form frog hunting. For emphasis, he made a fist with his thumb extended straight up. The Southwest Conference had its first hand sign.

Like the UT mano cornuta sign, this one has other meanings in other places and times. And as for that gesture that so unnerved the Norwegians, its roots turn out to lie in classical logic:

For a quarter of a century after Pinky Downs's moment of inspiration, the Aggies had a monopoly on official gestures. But by 1955 archrival UT had fallen on hard times, made harder by a corresponding rise in the fortunes of A&M. A UT cheerleader named Harley Clark syllogized: (1) A&M has a hand sign, (2) A&M is winning, (3) UT has no hand sign, therefore (4) UT is losing. (Such reasoning prowess would later lead Clark, as an Austin judge in 1987, to conclude that the state's system of financing public schools was unconstitutional.) At a pep rally before the TCU game, Clark held up his right hand in a peculiar way. The index and little fingers were sticking up, while the thumb held down the two interior digits--the head of a Longhorn, Clark said. The creation proved not to be the immediate answer to UT's football plight, however, as signless TCU won the next day, 47-20.

I appreciate living in a country where the roots of folk ways are so well documented. But now I wonder, what other American universities have hand signs?

[Update: Wes Meltzer writes:

I spotted your post on Language Log about school hand signs. I don't know the rest of the Big Ten terribly well, but I'm a Northwestern student and I can say, safely, that we have one. It's a hand with the fingers curled outward to form a claw, which (apparently) represents the wildcats we're using as a mascot.

But, being a small and athletically unimportant school, you would never meet another NU grad and make a claw sign, like Texas alumni do to each other. But it's a football-game thing; we give the band the claw, and sometimes, if the crowd is fired up and we've won -- not so common -- the football team, too.

Athletically unimportant? NU's football team beat Ohio State and Purdue this year, and has been Big 10 champion or co-champion three times in the past decade. But I guess that if we get a president from Chicagoland, his or her mother probably won't be making the NU claw sign at the inaugural. ]

[Update #2: Justin Busch at Semantic Compositions has posted about a hand sign (with arm motion) performed at USC sporting events. ]


Posted by Mark Liberman at January 23, 2005 02:27 PM