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Hand Signs & Numbers

I have a couple of young Neapolitan friends who are fans of American professional sports, especially basketball and football. They enjoy NBA games on TV and are fans of the local Naples pro basketball team. At the appropriate time of the year, they turn out to practice with a local semi-pro Naples football team sponsored by a local clothing store called "Original Marines". That's the real name of the store, and that's the name the team have emblazoned on their football jerseys when they play. It's strange to see the bunch of them all decked out in football helmets, shoulder pads and assorted body armor running around a field where people normally play soccer. They endure a lot of good-natured ribbing from passers-by, but it's all in fun. 

One of the things that most intrigues them about American sports is the way US referees signal numbers with their fingers. I must say that it intrigues me, as well. Times have changed. Number "one" (the raised index finger) has stayed the same, but we used to make "two" with a simple "V" of index and middle finger. I see referees now making "two" with the raised index and little finger. In Naples and most anywhere in the Latin world, that particular configuration of fingers (image, left) is exclusively the sign of the cuckold—the betrayed husband—and the rudest hand gesture you can make. It is enough to start fights —even, in certain circumstances, fights to the death. It amuses my friends no end to see an American referee giving 80,000 fans in the stadium—and who knows how many more at home!—that sign from the middle of the field when it's second down. 

The number 3 is tricky. It was always hard, anyway. You had to use your thumb to hold down the pinkie way over on the other side of your palm in order for the three fingers in the middle to pop up. The new American “3” is made by thumbing down the index finder and extending the middle, ring, and little fingers. Some people find that an improvement, I know, but these are the same people who have trouble with the Vulcan sign for “Live Long and Prosper”. Four and five were, and remain, easy. 

Neapolitan refs are torn between the two systems, I notice. They generally make the sign for "one"—say, on first down—with the index finger, although that number is usually signed elsewhere—maybe in a bar to order one of anything—by a thumbs-up sign. "Two" is—again, in a restaurant—a thumb and index finger, kind of like shooting off an imaginary pistol toward the ceiling. Naples football refs are unsure of this one and there is some talk of an ecumenical conference to decide the issue; they use either the thumb/index finger version or the "V" sign, but under no circumstances the new and improved cuckold sign. "Three" in a restaurant and on the field is the extended thumb and "V" sign—none of this prestidigitatious contortionism of having to grapple with your own pinkie. Very few of my students at the university of Naples can easily make either one of the American signs for 3 without giggling as they struggle with it. Four and five are the same in both Naples and the US: thumb down and all others up for "4" and everything up for "5". 

The only trouble I ever had with "5" was in Greece, when I was made aware of the fact that showing someone your outstretched palm in the manner we would use to show "5" is the same as "giving the finger" to someone in the US. I don't think they play American football in Greece. 

[see also: Gestures & A. de Jorio]

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