Summary: Rude British gestures and other body language that could cause offense in the United Kingdom.
Teachers can understandably be reluctant to get their students thinking about and making (very) rude gestures during lessons, and we hardly want them to start experimenting with offensive hand movements etc outside the class. However, it can be both interesting and useful to know about the more aggressive sides of body language. By studying things like the “V sign”, language learners can tell if they are being insulted and in exactly what way, understand the hidden message in British movies, and not accidentally make a bad impression on British people. The naughtiness of the topic can also make them more interested and aware of the topic of cultural differences in body language and gestures generally.
This article goes through the most common rude gestures in the UK, starting with ones which are least likely to be understood by people from other countries. Please note that it is difficult to explain the meanings of offensive gestures without using some rude words, so this article will not be suitable for everyone. However, there are also more general articles on this topic on this site with the titles “80 British gestures” and “British body language”, available here:
“Right” and “left” below always mean for the person doing the gesture (not for the person viewing it). All explanations are for right-handed people, but changing hands doesn’t change the meaning.
The V sign
This is the closest thing to a specifically British gesture, being used in only a couple of other countries and being misunderstood and misused even by Americans. It consists of making a V shape by holding up one hand with your middle finger and index finger held apart from each other and with the other fingers and thumb down. The offensive version of this has your palm facing yourself, meaning the back of your hand is facing the other person. This makes the V sign like a reverse “peace sign”, with the hand turned around. Its meaning is something like “f**k you” or “f**k off”, making it similar in offensiveness to the more internationally known “middle finger” gesture explained below. However, there are some differences.
I would say that the middle finger is more direct and aggressive, and that the V sign is more taunting, defiant or cheeky. For example, if someone in the crowd at a football match uses the middle finger towards supporters of the other team, it means something like “If you were here, I’d hit you” or “I’ll kill you for what you just chanted”. In contrast, the V sign at a soccer match means something more like the challenge “Come over here if you think you’re hard enough”, “Ha ha ha, you’ll have to do better than that chant if you want to offend us”, or “Ha ha, you can’t get us even if you wanted to (because of the row of police between us)”. The V sign is also something that naughty kids in my school often did out of the back window of the bus at motorists, a situation in which the middle finger doesn’t seem quite right.
Having said all that, the V sign is a particularly annoying gesture, even when done accidently, so visitors need to be very careful when ordering two drinks or two stamps in the UK, making sure they turn their hand around to make the peace gesture.
Middle finger/ Giving someone the finger (offensive gesture)
Hold up your right fist with the back of your hand facing the other person and raise just your middle finger. This is about the most aggressive/ offensive gesture in English, meaning basically “f*ck you”, often as a replacement for actually hitting someone.
The five finger shuffle gesture
Make a kind of empty tube from your thumb and your fingers of your right hand, with your index finger and thumb making a circle and all the other fingers curved under your index finger, like a fist with a gap in the middle. Without moving your arm, move your hand up and down. This is a fairly obviously a sign for “wanker”, which literally has the sexual meaning of a man who masturbates. However, in the UK the insult “wanker” generally means someone who is selfish, egotistical, boastful, showing off, etc. This makes it different from the other aggressive offensive gestures mentioned in this article. For example, if someone drives aggressively and dangerously near you on the motorway, the middle finger would mean something like “If we weren’t in cars, I would hit you”, whereas the shuffling fist would probably mean “You are acting like a selfish idiot, you should be embarrassed/ you should be ashamed of yourself”.
Gestures for crazy
Both gestures for crazy start with your right index finger pointing horizontally at your right temple. You then either twist that finger round and round in circles (as if you were drawing a small circle on the side of your head) or tap your skull a few times. The gesture for “Don’t forget”, also involves tapping your head, but with the finger on the right side of your forehead rather than on your temples, and with the finger more vertical. As with the gestures for two and the V sign above, this means it is very easy for foreign people to make the wrong gesture and so unknowingly offend someone.
Thumbing your nose at someone (childish insult)
Hold up an open right hand with fingers pointing up and your little finger towards the other person. Put the tip of your thumb on the tip of your nose and move your four fingers up and down randomly and independently from each other, as if you are playing a trumpet. This gesture often goes with the sounds “Nah nah nah nah nah”, as in “Nah nah nah nah nah, you can’t catch me” or “Nah nah nah nah nah, you lose again”. It is a teasing or provoking gesture, like a very mild version of the V sign. It is mainly used by kids, but adults sometimes use it ironically, for example if I finally got to work before you and so got the best desk by the window. To be even more over the top and childish, you can also do the same thing with two hands. This can be done by putting the thumb of the second hand on the little finger of the first hand to make it longer, or (more commonly) by making the same playing the trumpet gesture with your thumbs on the two sides of your head with your palms facing the other person.
Blowing a raspberry
Stick out your tongue between your teeth and lips so that the other person can see just the tip of it. Blow above and around your tongue so that the air makes a rude noise, similar to a farting sound (=letting off wind from your bottom). This gesture and sound has a range of related meanings in English, usually meaning something like “It’s not fair”, “I envy you” or “I don’t care”. It is therefore usually used in reaction to something that the other person has done or said, for example if they won and you lost, if they got something which you didn’t, if they knew something that you got wrong, or if they thumbed their nose at you (see above).
Slow hand clap/ Ironic clapping
Clap your hands as if someone has done something good such as played the violin well, but do so really slowly. This has the opposite meaning of complete disapproval of what you have just heard, e.g. complete disagreement with what a politician has just said in their speech.
Perhaps while making a “whoosh” sound like a plane flying over your head, move an open hand over the top of your head, close to but not touching it. Like the English idiom “It went over his head”, this gesture means that someone didn’t catch something that they should have, e.g. completely missed some ironic/ sarcasm, a joke, an insult or a reference to something cultural such as a quote from a film. This can be used against yourself to mean “Sorry, I completely missed that”, but is much common against or about other people. This gesture should only be used very jokingly or with caution, because it basically means that person was too stupid to understand or notice.
(Military) saluting in Britain
A serious military salute (meaning putting your hand up to your forehead and back down again like a soldier greeting an officer) is something that most British people have never done in their lives. Perhaps because of that, saluting almost always have an ironic or even aggressive meaning in the UK. It often has the connotation that the person who gave the order doesn’t really have the authority to do so or that they should have asked you more politely, like saying “Who made you the boss?” or “I’ll do it, but I’ll get you back for it later”. To make the ironic meaning more obvious, you could make a much more florid salute, finishing with your palm facing the other person, and/ or say “Yes sir/ ma’am” as you salute the other person. Or for the ultimate aggressive version, people sometimes make a Nazi salute, often while clicking their heels together.
Blah blah blah gesture
Hold both hands in front of you at about rib height, with the fingers of each hand pointing towards the other hand and the thumb under the fingers. Move the thumbs up and down, so that it looks like two ducks quacking. The gesture represents people speaking, usually meaning speaking too long and/ or speaking about something pointless. Given how insulting this is, it is obviously mainly used about people rather than directly towards those people, for example when reporting a conversation (“And then he said I needed to think about my future, blah, blah, blah” etc). It can also be done with one hand “speaking” into your own ear, which can have the even more aggressive meaning of “(Stop nagging). You are giving me a headache”.
Shrugging in the UK
Like every nationality that I know, the British naturally shrug their shoulders when they don’t know something. However, shrugging can be taken to mean “I don’t care” and/ or “I can’t be bothered thinking about it” in the UK rather than “I’m afraid I don’t have that information”, and is perhaps the ultimate sign of bad attitude. People in service situations such as department store staff should therefore be careful not to shrug when asked questions (however unreasonable those questions may be).
Gestures for drunkenness
A thumb towards your mouth from out of your fist, perhaps with your little finger pointing out in the opposite direction, can just mean “(alcoholic) drink”, as in “Shall we go out for a quick drink?” However, it can also mean “He is/ She is/ You are drunk” or even “He is/ She is/ You are an alcoholic”, particularly if you move your head from side to side and or roll your eyes while you pretend to drink from your thumb.
Done and dusted gesture
Slapping your palms together as you move them up and down, like getting rid of some dust from them, can have the positive meaning of having successfully finished something. However, it can also mean “I want nothing more to do with it/ you”/ “I wash my hands of it/ you”.
Face palm gesture
Hold your open hand in front of you with your palm up and then bend your elbow until the hand finishes up on your forehead, preferably with an audible slapping sound. This means “What an obviously stupid thing to say or do”, often aimed at yourself (as in “I can’t believe I just did that”) but sometimes at other people (as in “You idiot. That was never going to work”).
Shooting yourself gesture
Mime shooting yourself in the head with your index finger and middle finger as the barrel of the gun and your thumb as the hammer. You can also bring down the hammer, show the gun shooting back and/ or make a “pow” noise to make the meaning of the action clearer. This gesture is fairly neutral if it is aimed at yourself (“Why did I say such a stupid thing? I wish I could just die on the spot”) or life generally (“Three hours with just one student again. Suicide might be a better choice!”). However, it is also used against other people, meaning “Seriously, again?”, “I can’t believe I have to listen to you talking about that again. I’d rather kill myself than listen to any more”, etc.
Throwing up your hands gesture
Start with your open hands over your pockets and bring both arms up until your hands are over your shoulders, near your ears. This can have the positive meaning of “Okay, you win the argument” or the fairly neutral meaning of “This is too difficult for me”, but it can also have the quite insulting meaning of “I give up with you. You are obviously never going to be able to do this/ You are obviously too stupid to understand”.
Be quiet gestures
You have to be quite careful how and when you use a finger in front of your lips to mean “hush”, as it is a bit too direct in many situations. However, there is also a stronger, more aggressive gesture, basically meaning “Shut up”. Pinch together the thumb and index finger of your right hand and place it at the left edge of your closed mouth. Pull it straight along your lips, touching them all the way, until it reaches the extreme right of your mouth. This represents zipping closed your mouth, like closing the zip on a bag etc, and can sometimes be accompanied by the very aggressive phrase “Zip it!”
Massaging your forehead gesture
Screw up your face in a frown. Touch your right and left sides of your forehead with the thumb and fingers of your right hand respectively, and massage your head as if you are thinking deeply, are troubled or have a headache. This obviously means “What can I do?”, often aimed at the other person as in “What can I do with you? (I can’t believe you have messed this up again)” or “You’ve really put me in a difficult position”, but sometimes also at yourself as in “I can’t believe I did that”, similar to the face palm above.
Rolling your eyes gesture
Look up as far as you can and perhaps make your eyes actually roll around by looking top left and top right. This means something like “Seriously?”, “Enough already!”, “I can’t believe you have done that (again)” and/ or “You’re so embarrassing”. Like those phrases, the gesture is most often used by teenagers about adults, especially their parents. If adults use this gesture it can seem quite immature and so reflect at least as badly on the person making the gesture as on the person being gestured about. However, it can be used ironically with friends and colleagues (perhaps saying “Dad!” and/ or one of the phrases above in a suitably over-the-top embarrassed teenager way) or perhaps behind someone’s back about them (rather than directly towards them).
The bring it on gesture
Gesturing “come here” with both hands towards one person (with fingers up and your palms facing yourself) can literally mean “Come over here for a fight (if you think you are hard enough)”. It can also have the related but less physical meaning of “Insult me/ my idea as much as you like, I can take it”.
“Loser”, “Whatever” and “Speak to the hand” gestures
These three gestures are fairly well recognised in the UK but are considered to be outdated and to have only ever been seriously used by American teenagers, so they are mostly used in a jokey way and/ or with the words said with an over-the-top Californian Valley Girl accent.
You show the other person the letter L from the word “loser” with the thumb and index finger of your right hand on your forehead, with the thumb horizontal and the index finger vertical. This word can mean that the other person lost at a game or sport, but it can also mean that they did something that was a waste of time, not cool, etc, for example playing computer games all Friday night instead of going clubbing.
The W from “whatever” is made with the thumbs and index fingers of both hands, with the thumbs touching each other at an angle. The other fingers should be folded down so the other person can just see the letter W. “Whatever” means “I don’t care about what you are saying”, for example if someone has just insulted you or given an excuse for something bad that they did.
“Speak to the hand (because the face don’t want to know)” means “I have no interest in what you are saying”. The gesture is made by putting up a palm facing the other person and turning your head to one side. This gesture is almost always said accompanied by the words “Speak to the hand” (usually with as fake an American as possible), as otherwise it could be taken to mean “Hold on”.
Put your hands around your neck with your hands crossed as if you are trying to strangle yourself, then put out your tongue and roll your eyes as if you are dying. This usually means “I/ You/ He choked”, meaning got too nervous and messed something up, e.g. a presentation, job interview or conversation with someone who you find attractive. It can also sometimes mean “I want to die (from embarrassment)”/ “I wish the ground would open up and swallow me (to save from any more embarrassment)”.
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