John Baptist, staring at him with eyes opened to their utmost width, made a number of those national, backhanded shakes of the right forefinger in the air, as if he were resolved on negativing beforehand everything that the other could possibly advance during the whole term of his life.

(From Charles Dickens' Little Dorrit, Chapter 11)

What does "national" mean in the above context?

  • Italians are among the nationals known for gesturing when they speak, certainly more than the English. Commented Mar 28, 2022 at 12:38

1 Answer 1


When 'John Baptist' Cavalletto is introduced in Chapter 1, he answers a question of Rigaud's with that peculiar back-handed shake of the right forefinger which is the most expressive negative in the Italian language.

I can't find it in any modern lists of Italian hand gestures, though!

So, to answer the question, national refers to this and means 'typical of people of the Italian nation'.

  • "The Italian nation" was only formed in 1861, whereas Little Dorrit was published between 1855 and 1857. Nit picking, I know, but you may wish to rephrase this — "typical of Italians" would surely do.
    – David
    Commented Dec 17, 2022 at 10:41
  • National was Dickens' word, not mine! Commented Dec 17, 2022 at 10:56

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