The Pinched Fingers Emoji’s Creator Explains Its Meaning

Here’s how the most popular new addition to the Unicode was conceived. Its origin has nothing to do with fisting.

Illustration: Tessa Modi

AtAt a journalism conference a few years ago, Jennifer 8. Lee, vice-chair of the Unicode Emoji Subcommittee, was intrigued by a hand gesture her friend kept making. Adriano Farano, an Italian media entrepreneur deep in discussion about limoncello, kept pinching his fingers together and moving his hand up and down.

He explained to Lee that it means “What do you want?” in English — “Ma che vuò?” in Italian. It’s one of the most common hand gestures that Italians make when communicating nonverbally, according to Farano.

But despite its ubiquity, there was no way to communicate that hand gesture in emoji. So, Lee, Farano, and an Oakland-based filmmaker, writer, and emoji creator Theo Schear (famous for creating the juice box emoji) submitted a 14-page proposal to the Unicode Consortium in April 2019. On Wednesday, the consortium announced that a new pinched fingers/”What do you want?” emoji — together with 100 other new ones — will officially roll out in March as part of Unicode 13.0.

The emoji is a profile view of a hand turned palm-up, with its fingers pinched to a triangular point. After it was announced, it quickly went viral with the help of tweets from progressive politician Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, comedian Jaboukie Young-White, and thousands of others celebrating the announcement.

“It’s the beauty of our species to communicate in such diverse ways.”

Farano was thrilled about the pinched fingers emoji being added to the Unicode and sees it as a way for Italians all over the world to communicate a variety of sentiments through text.

“Everybody knows that Italians speak with their hands. But for a long time, there wasn’t an emoji inspired by this entertaining feature of my people,” Farano says. “To all Italians living abroad, the approval of the pinched fingers emoji is a way to join the global community of people in their sharing of a wide variety of states of mind and feelings that mirror as many cultural traits and traditions.”

Of course, in the day since Unicode made the announcement, there have been countless other interpretations of the emoji.

Some say it reminds them of the “made you look” game (also known as “the circle or slap” game, where you make a little circle with your fingers in your friend’s peripheral vision and smack them when they see it). Others say it reminds them of the way they were taught to pick up food when eating without utensils. One person turned the emoji upside down, so it looks like the hand is sprinkling salt. And people in the queer community are excited to use the emoji as a symbol for fisting.

In their proposal, Lee, Farano, and Schear acknowledged the usage of the hand gesture outside of Italy. “Beyond the Italian diaspora of the pinched fingers gesture, the symbol is also extremely common in other Mediterranean cultures,” they wrote, referencing the usage of the gesture to mean “wait a minute,” “hurry up,” or “relax” in Israel. (It’s also used as a symbol for “wait a minute” elsewhere in the Middle East.) “In our increasingly globalized social climate, this gesture is no longer exclusively an Italian or even Mediterranean symbol.”

“It’s the beauty of our species to communicate in such diverse ways,” Farano says.

Drew Costley is a Staff Writer at FutureHuman covering the environment, health, science and tech. Previously @ SFGate, East Bay Express, USA Today, etc.

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