City of Sound is about cities, design, architecture, music, media, politics and more. Written by Dan Hill since 2001.

By chance, just after posting the 21st century gestures series, I discovered Bruno Munari’s 1963 book Supplemento al dizionario italiano”. (This piece originally published at on 18 October 2012.)

This is a delicious project, which starts with a collection of gestures collated in the 19th century, published in 1832 in Naples, collated by Canon Andrea de Jorio under the title “The Ancients’ mimic through the Neapolitan gestures”.

This beautifully and simply illustrated set features some gestures still in existence, such as rubbing thumb and forefinger to denote “money”, as well as thumbing the nose and so on. Though I’m not sure we see the gesture for “You act a sham part of the first lady!” used so much these days. Then again, I’ve never spent much time in Napoli.

Munari’s book continues as a contemporary update, brilliantly envisaged as a supplement to the Italian dictionary and described with concise text in Italian, English, French and German, juxtaposed with artfully staged photographs. It’s entirely redolent of 1963, even though Munari starts with a few Roman gestures and co-opts many of the Neapolitan set.

“What do you expect?”

Deploying a 1950s clip-art style for my set of technology-induced gestures — explained in the text — it’s rather tempting to consider reproducing the 21st century version, perhaps incorporating Team Nova’s additional gestures, in the 1963 Munari style.

As with most things Italian, it is both a national project — it is an Italian dictionary, that artefact of nation building, after all — and decidedly local, with its Neapolitan origins and to the extent that it includes the sign for Punt e Mes, a gesture that “originated in Turin towards the end of the nineteenth century to signal an order for the famous bitter vermouth.”

“Punt e Mes”
“I don’t care”

It’s somewhere between practical guide and practical joke, and is so deadpan it’s difficult to know either way. Or rather, it works either way. C recounts how an estate agent actually demonstrated the “rapid, slashing movement across the throat, to suggest a blade” to her the other day, indicating it was perhaps better to live in the town than in the countryside.

“It’s nothing to do with me”

The few concessions to physical gestures drawn from our interaction with technology, as per the subject of my essay, are perhaps the near-universal signs for scissors — the snip-snip of forefinger and middle finger — and for telephones, with the sign for “call me”, described here in English as “Ring up!: The index finger makes a dialling movement near the ear.” Perhaps also “Thumbing a lift” — which could’ve been pre-car though is described as “recent” — and maybe “Have you a cigarette?”, if we can consider a cigarette as technology.

“Ring Up!”
“What a bore”
“Pied de nez”

“Supplemento al Dizionario Italiano”, by Bruno Munari (Amazon)

Originally published at on 18 October 2012.


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