Sociologists at the University of Okoboji have determined that the meaning of a hand gesture common in North America has undergone a recent, dramatic shift. Their conclusion: raising a middle finger is now a holiday greeting.
Semioticians, who study signs and symbols, and how their meanings are constructed and understood, have theorized the possibility of what is called "sudden denotative shift," but only a few considered it a real possibility.
"We have vindicated the SDS (sudden denotative shift) theory," said Peter Watson, a member of the UO research team that conducted the study. "These new findings should open up completely new avenues for research."
Watson likens his team's efforts to recent work in evolution, which had long been thought to move so slowly as to be nearly undetectable. "Just as Hoffman at Melbourne showed a species can evolve in as little as 20 years, we have shown that the meaning of a gesture can evolve--but even faster," Watson said.
Watson was referring to the work of Ari Hoffman at the Center for Environmental Stress and Adaptation Research at Latrobe University in Melbourne, Australia, who determined that the Australian fruit fly had adapted to global warming in the last 20 years. His findings were published in the journal Science.
James Pike, a statistician and member of Watson's research team, said that gestures, like languages, were also assumed to move very slowly. "Population dynamics and stable communication media, such as the printed word, audio and video recording, were thought to make SDS nearly impossible," Pike says. "Their value as media depend on a stable substrate of meaning. However, meanings are constructed by humans as an abstract process, making them susceptible to nearly arbitrary changes."
To ensure the objectivity and quantifiability of their study, Pike and Watson, along with a group of student volunteers from UO, collected data on the frequency of a gesture involving the use of a raised middle finger at local shopping malls and parking lots during the year, and correlated the data against weather variables, times of day, days of the week, and finally, to days of the year.
"The strongest statistical association between use of the RMF (raised middle finger) came out in the final correlation," Watson said. "In fact, time of the year was the only statistically significant correlation with changes in the rate of the [RMF] gesturing."
Because of this, the researchers conclude that use of the RMF no longer denotes "opprobrium or disrespect," but something more positive in meaning. "Use of the RMF now actually denotes, or conveys, 'Happy Holidays' in the most general sense," Pike says. The gesture was found to have a generic meaning, rather than an association with a particular sectarian holiday, during follow-up interviews with gesturers. The RMF was used in nearly equal proportions by Christians, Jews, Wiccans and atheists.
Watson does not believe this signals a wider cultural use of the RMF. "Since the RMF now denotes 'Happy Holidays,'" he says, "we predict that its use will merely become increasingly more prevalent during the holiday season."