The Pinching Hand Emoji Is A Lot
One new emoji added in 2019 was quickly deemed to represent a small penis, but it's so much more than that.
In March 2019 the Unicode Consortium released over 60 new emoji code points as part of Unicode 12.0. This update featured a wide-ranging new set of emojis including flamingo, ringed planet, and ice cube. Among these is one lone disembodied hand: 🤏 Pinching Hand.
The different designs of 🤏 Pinching Hand form an interesting study in what various platforms deemed important about this gesture. In half the designs the fingers pinch toward the left, and in the other half they pinch toward the right. On all platforms but Microsoft, the index finger and thumb are close but not touching and the spaces between these fingers varies from pea- to pistachio-sized.
OpenMoji, an open source emoji project, has the middle, ring, and pinky fingers fanned out, almost like an 👌 OK Hand, but with the index finger and thumb not touching. Is it important where the fingers are positioned? Could that change the meaning of this gesture?
Looking at the designs across platforms, it could be argued that there’s a slight change to the meaning if there’s a pea-sized space between the index finger and thumb versus a pistachio-sized space. The latter would represent a slightly bigger thing. It might not make as significant of a difference when you shrink it down to emoji size, though.
The direction the pinching fingers face might also impact the way users on different platforms position this emoji in the context of other emojis. If you wanted to indicate that something is tiny on an Apple device, you might put an emoji to represent that tiny thing to the left of 🤏 Pinching Hand. On Twitter, it would make more sense for these emojis to be swapped. This could cause some confusion for friends communicating across platforms.
Bodo Winter, a lecturer in Cognitive Linguistics at the University of Birmingham, studies this exact gesture in non-emoji form. Specifically he researches the meaning of the pinching hand as used in TV news. By studying this gesture, he and his colleagues gain insight into the way people communicate ideas by making signals that resemble those ideas.
The pinching gesture echoes the real-world action of picking up something tiny. Winter explained:
“People actually put their index finger and thumb closer together if they want to grasp a small object, and the pinch gesture is generally seen as mimicking this actual practical action.”
He recently took a look at the proposal for this newly approved emoji. “What I particularly like,” Winter said, “is that the proposers not only talk about the 'pinching' gesture indicating a small size, but also a small quantity.”
In addition to small size and small quantity, Winter brought up a third meaning, this one more abstract. In some cases, the pinch gesture is used to indicate precision. “Speakers can use the pinch if they want to make a precise point about a topic, or if they want to appear as somebody who is commonly making precise statements,” he said. This is why you often see politicians making this sort of gesture. A 2011 paper by Michael Lempert focuses on Barack Obama’s use of this gesture in debates between 2004 and 2008 to indicate that a “sharp, effective point” is being made.
As you speak or think about what you want to say, you often subconsciously make these sorts of gestures. Lauren Gawne, a research fellow at La Trobe University and co-host of the popular linguistics podcast Lingthusiasm, explained that “some of the gestures you make depict how you're putting what you're saying together.” Gawne mentioned other examples beyond the pinching gesture: “When you're refusing or disagreeing you might wipe your hand away from yourself, [and] when you're asking a question your palms might be turned up.”
It’s relatively common for a single emoji to access multiple meanings, and this is certainly true of emojis that represent IRL hand gestures that are already used in several different contexts like 🤏 Pinching Hand. Gretchen McCulloch, internet linguist and author of Because Internet (and other co-host of Lingthusiasm), thinks pinching hand will play out similarly to another hand gesture emoji: 🙏 Folded Hands. “There were several possible meanings—thank you, prayer hands, high five—in competition with each other at first, so it’ll be interesting to see which of these possible meanings for the pinching hand gesture ends up becoming most popular in the long run,” she said. For further reading on this topic, see Gawne and McCulloch's 2019 paper "Emoji as Digital Gestures" in the journal Language@Internet, in which they break down different categories of emojis and place them in the framework of gesture linguistics.
When Unicode first announced the new emojis for 2019, several publications noted a very specific use case for 🤏 Pinching Hand. “There’s A New Emoji that People Think May Change Sexting Forever,” a BuzzFeed headline boasts. The article later names this emoji “tiny dick gesture.” Vice and Elle dub it the “small dick emoji,” and a Mashable article states “it totally symbolizes a small penis.” Nylon calls it “a perfect response to unsolicited dick pics.”
While this is a very real way people might use the pinching gesture in both the physical world and in the emoji world, this societal obsession with penis size can be harmful. Masculinity is not defined by penis size, or even having a penis at all in the case of many trans men or nonbinary individuals. For some, replying to a dick pic with 🤏 Pinching Hand is a tongue-in-cheek response, completely self-aware of the philosophies being turned upside down. Others might use it as stock comeback without thinking too much about the cultural implications of “size matters.” This is all something to keep in mind when sending 🤏 Pinching Hand, or any emoji, to mean “small dick.”
Another emoji hand gesture to consider when discussing 🤏 Pinching Hand is 👌 OK Hand. Winter notes that sometimes the pinching gesture and the ok gesture are used in overlapping ways, but not always. 👌 OK Hand has “much more varied meanings,” which are culturally dependent. He explained: “In the West, this sign generally means 'ok,' but depending on cultural context, it can mean anything from 'perfection' (Italy) over to 'zero' (France). In many cultures, the ring type gesture can also be offensive, referring to the anus.” While the meanings of gestures are often cross cultural, they are by no means universal. This is true of both actual physical hands and emoji representations of hands.
Where their senses intersect, the pinching and ok hand gestures can be used to evoke a range of other meanings from chef’s kiss, an expression of extreme approval (which can be represented though emoji as 😗👌—see Italian sense of ‘perfection’) to the “smallest violin,” in which someone listening to a sob story mockingly offers an accompaniment on a violin so tiny, it must be played by pinching two fingers together (finger positions can vary).
One particularly memorable image of this pinching gesture, is what seems like every single promotional photo Elizabeth Holmes, the disgraced founder and CEO of the biotech company Theranos. In these photos she wears a black turtleneck and pinches a tiny vial of blood. Unbelievable power in such a tiny package, she seems to indicate with her hand. And, yes, it is literally unbelievable because, in fact, it is not to be believed. Tavi Gevinson famously posted a video of herself doing a Holmes impression, hand in that same gesture. Holmes also inspired countless 2019 Halloween costumes (she was blamed for a black turtleneck shortage). The hand gesture was a necessary part of the costume.
A search for “Elizabeth Holmes” and 👌 OK Hand on Twitter shows that people are regularly associating this particular hand gesture in emoji form with Holmes. Maybe people will start using the pinching hand gesture in a similar way, but it seems unlikely. The fact that the gesture with the fingers fanned out means “ok” adds a vital layer of irony that most designs for 🤏 Pinching Hand don’t access.
How 🤏 Pinching Hand will actually be used remains to be seen. McCulloch has her predictions, though:
“My guess is that the literal pinch or small size/quantity meanings will be more popular than the precise amount, but it’ll be interesting to look at the data in a few years!”
Now that 🤏 Pinching Hand is out there, new uses of it may emerge that we never even imagined.