Why does a thumbs-up gesture mean “okay”? : The simple answer is that – it doesn’t – well not always and not in every culture.
Any Roman gladiator movie worth its salt always includes the obligatory Colosseum combat scene where in the sated, corpulent sovereign seals the fate of a beaten warrior by giving the thumbs-down signal – or the thumbs-up if he wants him to live.
Most people assume that the modern-day thumbs-up signal originated from this Roman affirmative meaning. Not so. In his book Gestures, Desmond Morris explains that Romans signified their approval of a beaten warrior not by signaling thumbs up but by covering their thumbs. When the crowd wanted the victorious gladiator to finish off the loser, they extended their thumbs, which Morris theorizes mimicked the act of stabbing the beaten man.
In many parts of southern Italy and Greece, the thumbs-up gesture is a sexual insult rather than a sign of approval
If Rome was the birthplace of the thumbs-up signal, we would expect the gesture to be popular there today, and yet Italy (followed by Greece) was found to be the country in Europe where this meaning is least signified. In many parts of southern Italy and Greece, the thumbs-up gesture is a sexual insult rather than a sign of approval. It is likely that the thumbs-up gesture started somewhere else.
So, Where Did it Come From?
If the early Roman derivation has been debunked, why do we use a thumbs-up signal to indicate “okay”? The historical evidence, as with most gestures, is murky and contradictory. Morris and other authorities believe the predominant reason is that Western culture tends to associate upward movements with positive, optimistic feelings and downward movements with negative, pessimistic emotions.
Obviously, any finger pointed upward is heaven-bound. In the 1970s, the gesture of a forefinger extended upward became a symbol of fundamentalist Christians. The solitary forefinger not only indicated “one God” and “one way,” but where God resided and where the good Christian could someday reside.
The thumb might have been selected as the raised digit because it is the most easily isolated finger. Try raising your finger and withdrawing your other fingers, and you’ll realize why the thumb was a more natural choice.