Saturday, July 6, 2013

Obscene Gestures of the Ancient Greek


I saw something this week in The New York Times that made me think.  As opposed to cry, gnash my teeth, or curse the night.  

It was about hand gestures of the Italians.  There are hundreds they say, many coming via ancient Greeks who’d settled in southern Italy—which should come as no surprise to fans of such historic classics as the Aeneid and My Big Fat Greek Wedding.

Having been raised in an Italian neighborhood in Pittsburgh and now living in Greece, I clicked on the newspaper’s accompanying video, looking forward to a meaningful trip down memory lane.  Nice piece for the uninitiated, but virtually useless for anyone trying to follow the actual guts of a colorful, down home conversation among the locals.  It’s like wearing a pin-stripe suit to a (non-Yankee) baseball game and expecting to fit in with the fans in the bleachers.

Even if you don’t understand the language, knowing a few of the more, shall we say, earthy hand gestures will enrich your understanding of the people and possibly alert you to some situations (and people) you should avoid.

For example, if you happen to see two Greek men waving at each other, hands extended straight out from their shoulders, it’s not a “Howdy, my friend, how you doing?” moment.  Nor do I suggest adopting the gesture as a quaint way of saying “hello” to Greeks. 


So, as a public service for those seeking a less Politically Correct report than the Times’ coverage on local gestures, here are my top five or so obscene Greek gestures…as illustrated by my capable ancient Greek assistant, an A(n)donis in his own right. 

Let’s start with the “waving hand” gesture I just mentioned. It even has a name, the moutza. You’ll quite often see it serve as the precursor to a road rage incident when flashed by the victim of one of Greece’s finer driver’s incomprehensible decisions, such as passing a car in the face of on-coming traffic only to cut back in line barely inches from the soon to be moutza flashing other driver’s front bumper, running a stop sign, turning without warning, or otherwise demonstrating that the common sense rules of the road don’t apply to that driver. 

The moutza is the classic, non-verbal Greek method of expressing that you are the dumbest S.O.B. to walk the earth…or have done an award winning stupid act.


And for the really stupid  (acts and people), there’s the double moutza, though that’s rarely expressed in a driving situation except by a driver deserving of the double moutza himself… or herself.  For, yes, even women are known to flash the moutza on occasion.


Another gesture, one rarely expressed by a woman, is the one-handed chop in the direction of your own genital area or, if really incensed, a two-handed chop.  I say rarely by a woman because the dialog accompanying the act generally includes a reference “to my balls,” and is meant to convey, “I don’t give a damn about your opinion. Don’t waste my time with nonsense.”


There is a unisex version available for those so inclined.  It’s a one- or two-handed chop in the direction of the bottom of your shoes accompanied by a phrase roughly meaning “I write your words on the bottom of my old shoes because they’re so meaningless.”

Hmmm, bet you’re still wondering why the “All the news that’s fit to print” folks didn’t take their story in this direction.

To continue.  You’ll often see in modern Greece the “up yours” sign of one hand clasping the inside of the bent other arm at the elbow, or the middle finger salute, but purest Greeks regard them as coarser gestures corruptive of the classic Greek. “Up yours is Italian,” said my expert, and “this” flashing me the finger “is now part of America’s political culture” despite its Greco-Roman origins.


For the really hard-core classic Greek gesture equivalent to our revered middle finger, my friend demonstrated the time honored…drum roll…open handed, bent middle finger. 


Jim Croce (1943-1973)
A CLOSING WORD OF CAUTION.  Though many of these gestures are exchanged among friends in a teasing, playful way, the indiscriminate use of them can be hazardous to one’s health.  To paraphrase Jim Croce’s great lyric, “You don’t tug on Superman’s cape, you don’t spit into the wind, and you don’t flash the finger at the old Lone Ranger unless you want to end up skinned.”


Jeff—Saturday

19 comments:

  1. Thumbs-up to you, my friend. We all know, "You don't mess around with Jeff."

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    1. It you want to know about the true "don't mess with me dude" in my family, remind me some day to show you the photo of my gorgeous three-month old granddaughter that arrived as I was writing this piece. Her hand is posed as if modeling for the post!

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    1. Thanks, Theresa! I'm waving in thanks, by the way:)

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  3. Any post with a Jim Croce reference is definitely top of heap! A 'shaka' (hang loose) wave to you, Jeff!!!

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    1. A man after my own heart. I never tire of his music. Thanks, buddy.

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  4. Hello Jeff -

    I really loved your latest post on "Obscene Gesture Of The Ancient Greek". I have gone ahead and added "Murder Is Everywhere" to my Flipbaord. Keep writing awesome stuff, and I will keep reading it.

    Thanks again,
    Dante Smith

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    1. Thanks, Dante. You've inspired me dig down into the depths and see what I can come up with. Assuming I come up, because on Mykonos those depths can get verrrry deeeeeep.

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  5. This post definitely deserves an American-version 'high five' 'As soon as I figure out Flipboard I too will add you to it,' said your 'techno-dino' friend in Seattle.

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    1. I'm still working on clipboard. Thanks J&J.

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  6. Jeff, this is not only hilarious but useful. I'd like to see a collection of these for many countries. For example, crossing your legs do the sole of your foot points at someone is an insult in Thailand. Great, funny post.

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  7. Thanks, Tim, and congrats on the well-deserved, tremendous success of your "Junior Bender" series! Here's a (true) High-Five!!

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  8. Great post about something that sounds typically if not classically Greek. Enjoy your loved ones.

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    1. Six- and four-year olds with their own special gestures, Lil. :) Can't wait!

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  9. Thanks for this great lesson! How many of us in the States use some of these gestures and have no idea what we're really saying!!! Thelma Straw in New York

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  10. Hopefully, Thelma, not to someone large and short-tempered who does understand.:)

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  11. Hah, love it, Jeff -- I've learned something new today!

    (and sorry that I prematurely published my Sunday post! Just wasn't paying attention/thinking/etc.)

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  12. "The moutza is the classic, non-verbal Greek method of expressing that you are the dumbest S.O.B. to walk the earth…or have done an award winning stupid act."
    You are automatically wrong. Your opinions are bad and you should feel bad.
    Nope. Moutza is actually basically a form of social dissapointement. More accurately it is NOT really the equalivement of the facepalm, it is a form of someone giving an angry rejection like the don't care because they got dissapointment. In short is like "Take it,asshole. You don't worth my time, my speech, my spit.". It doesn't mean that someone taking mountza is stupid since nowdays it's employed by mentally challenged individuals and it lost its meaning except in the picture above where smat individuals used it. Like the word "malaka", "mountza" is ridicously overused to the logical point of turning into a meaningless empty everyday expression as a method to employ hidden anger.

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    1. Thanks, Anonymous, it's always great to hear from an expert well-versed in his subject.

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