Andrea de Jorio, whose La mimica degli antichi investigata nel gestire napoletano from 1832 is rather comprehensive regarding Neapolitan gesture, describes the gesture known -- since Desmond Morris et al.'s Gestures (London: Longmans, 1979) as the 'chin flick' -- in this way:
"Outside tips of the fingers pointed under the chin and pushed outwards forcefully".
He describes this gesture in his section entitled "Negativa, No", and it is the sixth of the 13 different gestures of negation that he describes. It is preceded by a description of a form of a head negation gesture in which the
"Head [is] raised a little as in pushing it backwards".
He adds "The Neapolitans typically give greater emphasis to this same gesture by adding one of the following, which also have the same meaning themselves, without the head being raised." The two gestures that may be added are a mouth gesture in which the "[l]ower lip [is] moved up somewhat and pushed outward a little, or pulled downwards towards one side", and the so-called "chin flick"), his description of which I already quoted. He provides a drawing of this gesture in his Plate XX1, No. 2.
Thus De Jorio sees the 'chin flick' as a reinforced version of the head negation gesture in which the head is pushed back somewhat. The 'chin flick' as de Jorio described it for Neapolitans in 1832 is still in use today here in the Neapolitan area, and it is used with just the significance that de Jorio ascribes to it: a forceful or reinforced "no". It can be used in many of the various contexts in which one wishes to say "no" or in some other way express a negative.
De Jorio suggests that the head-pushed-back gesture (his negation gesture No. 4) derives from a wish to distance oneself from whatever it is that is proposed -- and of his gesture of negation No. 6, here the 'chin flick', he adds
"...it is clear that with such an action the gesturer wishes to show that he wishes to distance his head from whatever is offered to him or proposed that does not please him. In order to do this with emphasis, the hand, the finger tips or just the nails may be used to push the head back as far as possible."
I have myself captured this gesture in use on video-tape several times, when it is being used within a discourse. That is, it is not being directed to another person but is part of saying something negative in a rather emphatic way.
Today, in a little local trattoria that I frequent here on the Island of Procida (where I am at the moment) I asked two local Procidanians (both at least in their sixties, I believe) if they knew and used the gesture. They were totally familiar with it and explained that it is a way of saying "no" or expressing a negative sentiment in a forceful way, confirming exactly Andrea de Jorio's explanation of it.
[Quotations from de Jorio are taken from my translation, published as Gesture in Naples and Gesture in Classical Antiquity by Indiana University Press, 2000. See pp. 290-291].
If you ask someone from the more northerly parts of Italy about this gesture they are likely to say that it means "I don't care" or "It does not bother me" -- and they do tend to suggest that it is a rather rude gesture. Possibly it can be used in this way also in Naples, but this is not the first meaning that is given to you if you ask about it. Certainly my video-tape recordings -- all recordings of natural spontaneous talk, not gesture elicitation recordings -- which I have never tried to do, by the way -- would confirm that here in the Neapolitan area, in any case, it is best interpreted as a forceful or reinforced negative. And I should think de Jorio's idea that it is a way of adding emphasis to the "head toss" negative is a very plausible derivation of the gesture.
In any case, as far as I know, there does tend to be a difference in how it is used in the Neapolitan zone (more or less coastal Campania, shall we say) and how it is used further north. I know nothing about its use in Sicily or Calabria, however. No one has undertaken any sort of systematic survey of the use of this gesture, by the way (except Morris et al., and their work was pretty 'rough', you might say).
Whether there is more than one form of this gesture, I do not know. The Neapolitans I have asked or have observed don't think so -- the gesture may be done more than once in succession if you are being really very strong in your negation. However, it may be that in the North, where it is said to accompany the expression "me ne frega" -- more or less "I don't care about it", and where it might be less acceptable, it may be that there are 'reduced versions' in which the finger tips as it were rub back and forth under the chin.
Gestures: Their Origins and Distribution, by Desmond Morris et al., describes a Europe-wide survey of twenty different gestural forms, including the 'chin flick'. Morris et al. are responsible for the name 'chin flick'. However, I do not have the book to hand here, and I cannot remember exactly what he has to say about this gesture.
(As to the gesture of negation in which you push the head back, this is still used even today in Southern Italy and Sicily, and is almost certainly very old. It is distributed in those parts of the Mediterranean that were, in antiquity, occupied by Greeks [see Gerhard Rohlfs "Influence des élements autochones sur les langues romanes (Problèmes de gógraphie linguistique). Actes du Colloque International de Civilisations, Littératures et Langues Romanes. Bucherest: Comission nationale roumaine pour l'Unesco, Actes du Colloque international de civilisations. 1959/1960. 240-247 and see also Peter Collett and Alberta Contarello "Gesti di assenso e di dissenso" in Pio Enrico Ricci Bitti, ed. Comunicazione e gestualità. Milan: Franco Agneli, 1987, pp. 69-85]).
This is the best I can do. As to Scalia, he is, after all, Italian-American -- I do not know his Italian background, but he is not, as far as I know, of Neapolitan origin. [Wikipedia says that says "Antonin Scalia was born in Trenton, New Jersey. His mother, Catherine, was born in the United States; his father, S. Eugene, a professor of romance languages, emigrated from Sicily at age 15." - myl] His use of what appears to be a version of the 'chin flick' (as described above) seems a little different from the Neapolitan one -- but then, as I say, in regard to language, as well as gesture, you cannot generalize about "Italians" -- you have to be local.
[Guest post by Adam Kendon]Posted by Mark Liberman at April 7, 2006 07:00 AM