The digital revolution

If you still don't know 'pram face' from 'west-side', then you're a 'loser - whatever way you look at it'. Confused? Need a translator? Stuart Husband gets to grips with the signs of our times
Click to follow
The Independent Online

It used to be so simple. There were five universal hand-signals, and there was no ambivalence about their meaning. First and second; the thumb or thumbs up, or, conversely, down, meaning: "Everything is great/ double great, not so great/double not so great." Third and fourth; the forward or backward V-sign, the former a Churchill-sanctioned all-purpose victory/glory/keep your pecker up shorthand, and the latter Liam Gallagher- speak for: "Get out of my face, youse tossers." And fifth, the aggressively lofted middle finger (Gallagher again).

It used to be so simple. There were five universal hand-signals, and there was no ambivalence about their meaning. First and second; the thumb or thumbs up, or, conversely, down, meaning: "Everything is great/ double great, not so great/double not so great." Third and fourth; the forward or backward V-sign, the former a Churchill-sanctioned all-purpose victory/glory/keep your pecker up shorthand, and the latter Liam Gallagher- speak for: "Get out of my face, youse tossers." And fifth, the aggressively lofted middle finger (Gallagher again).

Things are much more complicated now. As befits the digital age, there's a whole new digita franca out there that's turning tweens and teens - the early, and so far, major adopters - into demented semaphorists. While their encryptions are as baffling to the rest of us as the most rarefied Palare or Esperanto, the basic messages they're conveying - you are totally cool/a total bozo/common as muck/unutterably ugly (and so is your mum) - are as enduring as kid-upmanship itself.

There are two schools of thought as to where the phenomenon originated. "Kids say they first spotted it in Clueless," says Kathleen Pingol, a UCLA humanities student, who's studied what she calls "the signage thing". The 1995 movie, which rewrote Jane Austen's Emma as a story of Valley Girl apotheosis, offered the first sightings of the three cornerstones - the canon, if you will - of modern signage.

First, the "talk to the hand" (extend arm, palm forward, at speaker), meaning: "The words you speak are so much background static as far as I'm concerned," - a stylish alternative, admittedly, to the old option of sticking your fingers in your ears and yelling "Lalalala" until your interlocutor either backed down or beat you to a pulp.

Second, the "whatever" (extend thumbs and index fingers and touch thumbnails together to form a W shape), meaning: "Your opinion is valueless and without merit," usually accompanied by an exaggeratedly camp rendition of "Whaat-ev-uhhhhh".

And third, the "loser" (extend index finger and thumb to make an L shape, and then place hand against your forehead), meaning: "You are base and friendless and unworthy of even a smidgen of my attention."

These three have become so ubiquitous throughout screen culture - seen everywhere from Friends, Buffy and Charmed to the Legally Blonde movies, and even the Jerry Springer Show, where audiences regale guests with "loser" and "white trash" signage (a "whatever" followed by a T of index fingers, and surely a case of pots and kettles) - that they've developed their own spin-offs. "Talk to the hand" has become "talk to the hand 'cos the face ain't home, leave a message on the answerphone," performed with the original palm-out followed by a hand-to-ear mobile-phone simulacrum.

The "whatever'' W can now be done in a scout-like gesture and swung down horizontally across the chest to become an E for the "ever" (thumb and little finger twined, other three fingers forming the E), which is somehow more cutting and, at the same time, more ghetto-fabulous.

There's "whatever, minger" (the W followed by a quick downward swivel to make an M), meaning: "Your valueless opinion is compounded by your ineffable ugliness."

And "loser" has grown into "loser whatever way you look at it", meaning: "You are beneath the gnat on the evolutionary scale" (the L, then the W, then look through a square of thumbs and index fingers), and even the "surround- sound loser", meaning: "You are so a loser that anyone who ventures into your immediate vicinity will be hopelessly infected with loser-dom", created by two Ls either side of the head, waved vigorously back and forth.

Other insults, for all their viciousness, are ingenious. "Your mother works at McDonald's" (MWM, follow the guidelines above) is self-explanatory, while "pram face" (make a circle with index finger and thumb of left hand, right index finger placed to the left to make the stem of the P, then simply unfurl index finger and thumb to make the F) is a term popularised by the scurrilous website Popbitch to denote those girl-band members who look more suited to pushing enormous baby-carriers around sink estates while sporting scraped-back hair and leggings; essentially, a more creative form of "minger".

Signage's other evolutionary line, according to Pingol, can be traced back to the elaborate hand-pantos of street-gang members (which themselves evolved out of Masonic handshakes and all the secret-squirrel signals adopted by sects and cults over the centuries). Thus, any pasty kid in Penwith or Poplar can kid themselves they've acquired a little Blood/Crip edge. "West-side" (meaning: "Don't mess with me 'cos I'm from a more westerly sector of this 'burb") is a W made by entwining the two middle fingers and spreading the other two upward with your thumb in your palm (a different W to "whatever"), while "east-side" is simply the "west-side" symbol tipped on its side, which adds the extra frisson of dissing the westies.

There's an array of club signage, where decibel levels place nonverbal skills at a premium. "Tune" (a T made by pointing the fingers of one hand into the palm of another) is the way to say: "Ooh, I love this one," while "big tune" (closing the fists and making the T with your forearms) stands for: "I really, really love this one, I really really do."

"Safe" (bending the three middle fingers into the palm, sticking out the little finger and thumb, and giving the hand a wiggle) is a general symbol of affirmation, while "bangin" (closing your fist and smacking it repeatedly on your chest) means: "I'm feeling, like, so full-on affirmative," but should be used sparingly in case clubbers mistake your joy for some kind of seizure.

Signage's spread probably means it's already reached a tipping point; the very appearance of this guide would indicate that it's already, like, so over. "It ceases to have any cachet when the squares catch up," Pingol says. But, while "loser" and "whatever" may fade, she sees scope for more esoteric hieroglyphs to emerge. They're a handy substitute for speech - "a skill teenagers aren't particularly noted for". Yeah, right. Whatever.

Comments