I came across this little nugget of infomation whilst browsing a forum.

The English archers were so efficient against French knights that whenever the French captured one, they would cut of two fingers to ensure that they couldn't draw a bow string again. A gesture, that today is considered obscene, was originally a taunt to French knights meaning: "Come and get them!".

Wanting to find out more about this, as well as other gestures. I took a step back to figure out if a word exists that describes the study of the origin of gestures, but have had no success in finding this word.

Whilst Etyomology is the study of the history of words, is there a word that specifically applies to gestures or does the same word apply?

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    FYI, that "archer" story is apocryphal and was trotted out sometime in the '70s. Commented Jul 24, 2012 at 12:46

2 Answers 2


Gesture in Greek is χειρονομία (cheironomia), so a reasonable word for the study of gesture is cheironology.

Unfortunately hand in Greek is χέρι — it's easy to see where χειρονομία comes from — and cheirology is variously the study of the hand or the use of a finger alphabet ("writing with the hand"). It may be a moot point whether cheironology would be understood as the study of what the hand actually does. Cheironomology is surely too long.

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    Chirology is the study of gestures (coined, I believe, by John Bulwer in the mid-17th century), but that is not the same as the origins of gestures. Think semantics -v- etymology. One problem here is that palm-readers have hijacked the word to make themselves sound more scientific. Commented Jul 24, 2012 at 10:53

I'm sure "etymology" can be used to encompass "words" of a non-verbal nature.

From collins:

  1. the study of the sources and development of words and morphemes (link)

As a morpheme encompasses units of language, and not just spoken language, I feel it's safe to say "etymology" works with hand signals.

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    A morpheme is the smallest unit of a language that carries some meaning, such as affixes -ed or un-. They have no relationship at all to gestures. Maybe you are getting confused with semiotics - "2. The science of communication studied through the interpretation of signs and symbols as they operate in various fields, esp. language", but this is not specific to origins of gestures. Commented Jul 24, 2012 at 11:02
  • I'm willing to accept the possibility that I didn't use the word correctly, but I don't think it's accurate to say that morphemes have no relationship at all to gestures (see www.handspeak.com/byte/m/index.php?byte=morphology). Commented Jul 24, 2012 at 11:15
  • That is sign language, not gestures. Commented Jul 24, 2012 at 11:20
  • In other words, I'm confusing the vehicle with the occupant? Commented Jul 24, 2012 at 11:30
  • I have never heard that phrase before, but yes - I think you probably are. Signing is usually called a 'gestural language', and is a genuine language with all that entails, though the signed equivalent of a morpheme is a chereme This makes it different to a gesture as there is no adjectival form of giving someone the middle-finger, for example. Signing carries a specific message, while gestures are expressive or emblematic. Commented Jul 24, 2012 at 11:55

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