May 15, 2013

Thumbs Up

Giacomo & Slick

Giacomo & Slick

Thumbs Up

I was reading a book the other night, and when I finished I went to write a review for it. I wondered, does this get a “thumbs up” or a “thumbs down?” Since it was a damn good book I gave it a thumbs up. But did I do right?

Whenever I see the symbols on a movie rating or a product, I’m left to wonder—is that a good or bad thing? In the US, the ubiquitous thumbs up symbol means a good thing. Movies are ranked with the symbols, politicians seem to flash the thumbs up sign at every occasion, and it’s become standard fare in sports, by both players and spectators. But…did you know the whole “thumbs up” meaning is wrong?

What Does Thumbs Up Mean?

The gesture stems from the old gladiator days, when the editor, (one in charge of the games) had the final say on the fate of a fallen gladiator. The editors were people of high rank, usually a senator, a consul, or even the emperor.

You might not be surprised to learn that politics has been around a long time, and it was firmly established in ancient Rome, so the editors, being savvy politicians, normally sought the favor of the crowd. They would listen to what the public wanted, at least in public. In ancient Rome, when a gladiator lay helpless on the ground, his victor poised above him with sword in hand awaiting a signal, the crowd would vote with their thumbs.

  • The thumbs up signal was accompanied by a shout of iugula, which meant—kill him. (Some scholars believe the signal was more of a turned thumb and not a straight-up thumb gesture. The symbol signified a sword thrust up into the heart.)
  • A thumbs down signal followed the shouts of mitte, or let him go. (Signified that the victorious gladiator should lay his sword down.)
Pollice Verso

Pollice Verso

Origin of Thumbs Down

In either case, the thumbs down gesture meaning to kill, seems to have gained popularity based on a painting “Pollice Verso” done in 1872,  by Jean-Léon Gérôme.

As you can see from the painting, the crowd has their thumbs down, and the gladiator is looking for a sign from the editor of the games. His opponent’s fate awaits that decision. But the painting doesn’t clearly show the fate of the fallen gladiator, and people assumed the thumbs down meant death.


The thumbs up symbol as a good thing didn’t gain wide acceptance until after World War II. There are several stories as to how this happened and it might be that both contributed.

  • One story mentions the China-based Flying Tigers who adopted the signal from the Chinese who used it to show appreciation.
  • Another story attributes it to the pilots on aircraft carriers who used the thumbs up sign to indicate they were ready to “go up.”

In either case, the American GIs picked up on it and spread it throughout Europe. It soon became the one sign to mean “good” or “all is well.” Combat pilots around the world still use this gesture today.


But just because we accept the thumbs up gesture as good doesn’t mean others do. If you’re traveling in Sardinia or parts of the Middle East, don’t give a thumbs up to thank someone for their kindness or to signal you liked their food.

According to Roger Axtell’s book, Gestures: The Do’s and Taboos of Body Language Around the World, there are many countries that find that particular gesture quite offensive. Many of the Middle Eastern countries do, as well as parts of West Africa, South America, Iran, and Sardinia. In some of these countries giving the thumbs up signal is equivalent to the ubiquitous use of the middle finger in our own society.

Bottom Line

As to my review of the book, I gave it a thumbs up. But who knows, if not for the painting by  Jean-Léon Gérôme, I might have given it a big thumbs down.


Ciao, and thanks for stopping by,




Giacomo Giammatteo is the author of MURDER TAKES TIME, MURDER HAS CONSEQUENCES, and A BULLET FOR CARLOS. He lives in Texas where he and his wife have an animal sanctuary with 45 loving “friends.”

One Response to “Thumbs Up”

  1. Greg taught me about the thumbs up/down conundrum, later reaffirmed by an art history professor. Isn’t it strange the twists and turns a word or gesture takes on over the centuries?

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