The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals

Chapter 11: Disdain, Contempt, Disgust, Pride, etc., Helplessness, Patience, Affirmation and Negation

Charles Darwin

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Contempt, scorn and disdain, variously expressed--Derisive smile--Gestures expressive of contempt -- Disgust -- Guilt, deceit, pride, &c.--Helplessness or impotence -- Patience -- Obstinacy -- Shrugging the shoulders common to most of the races of man--Signs of affirmation and negation.

SCORN and disdain can hardly be distinguished from contempt, excepting that they imply a rather more angry frame of mind. Nor can they be clearly distinguished from the feelings discussed in the last chapter under the terms of sneering and defiance. Disgust is a sensation rather more distinct in its nature and refers to something revolting, primarily in relation to the sense of taste, as actually perceived or vividly imagined; and secondarily to anything which causes a similar feeling, through the sense of smell, touch, and even of eyesight. Nevertheless, extreme contempt, or as it is often called loathing contempt, hardly differs from disgust. These several conditions of the mind are, therefore, nearly related; and each of them may be exhibited in many different ways. Some writers have insisted chiefly on one mode of expression, and others on a different mode.

(253) From this circumstance M. Lemoine has argued[1] that their descriptions are not trustworthy. But we shall immediately see that it is natural that the feelings which we have here to consider should be expressed in many different ways, inasmuch as various habitual actions serve equally well, through the principle of association, for their expression.

Scorn and disdain, as well as sneering and defiance, may be displayed by a slight uncovering of the canine tooth on one side of the face; and this movement appears to graduate into one closely like a smile. Or the smile or laugh may be real, although one of derision; and this implies that the offender is so insignificant that he excites only amusement; but the amusement is generally a pretence. Gaika in his answers to my queries remarks, that contempt is commonly shown by his countrymen, the Kafirs, by smiling; and the Rajah Brooke makes the same observation with respect to the Dyaks of Borneo. As laughter is primarily the expression of simple joy, very young children do not, I believe, ever laugh in derision.

The partial closure of the eyelids, as Duchenne[2] insists, or the turning away of the eyes or of the whole body, are likewise highly expressive of disdain. These actions seem to declare that the despised person is not worth looking at or is disagreeable to behold. The accompanying photograph (Plate V. fig. 1) by Mr. Rejlander, shows this form of disdain. It represents a young lady, who is supposed to be tearing up the photograph of a despised lover.

The most common method of expressing contempt

(254) is by movements about the nose, or round the mouth; but the latter movements, when strongly pronounced, indicate disgust. The nose may be slightly turned up, which apparently follows from the turning up of the upper lip; or the movement may be abbreviated into the mere wrinkling of the nose. The nose is often slightly contracted, so as partly to close the passage;[3] and this is commonly accompanied by a slight snort or expiration. All these actions are the same with those which we employ when we perceive an offensive odour, and wish to exclude or expel it. In extreme cases, as Dr. Piderit remarks,[4] we protrude and raise both lips, or the upper lip alone, so as to close the nostrils as by a valve, the nose being thus turned up. We seem thus to say to the despised person that he smells offensively,[5] in nearly the same manner as we express to him by half-closing our eyelids, or turning away our faces, that he is not worth looking at. It must not, however, be supposed that such ideas actually pass through the mind when we exhibit our contempt; but as whenever we have perceived a dis-

Plate V
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(256)-agreeable odour or seen a disagreeable sight, actions of this kind have been performed, they have become habitual or fixed, and are now employed under any analogous state of mind.  

A person who is scorned is treated like dirt. Various odd little gestures likewise indicate contempt; for instance, snapping one's fingers. This, as Mr. Taylor remarks,[6] "is not very intelligible as we generally see it; but when we notice that the same sign made quite gently, as if rolling some tiny object away between the finger and thumb, or the sign of flipping it away with the thumb-nail and forefinger, are usual and well-understood deaf-and-dumb gestures, denoting anything tiny, insignificant, contemptible, it seems as though we had exaggerated and conventionalized a perfectly natural action, so as to lose sight of its original meaning. There is a curious mention of this gesture by Strabo." Mr. Washington Matthews informs me that, with the Dakota Indians of North America, contempt is shown not only by movements of the face, such as those above described, but "conventionally, by the hand being closed and held near the breast, then, as the forearm is suddenly extended, the hand is opened and the fingers separated from each other. If the person at whose expense the sign is made is present, the hand is moved towards him, and the head sometimes averted from him." This sudden extension and opening of the hand perhaps indicates the dropping or throwing away a valueless object.

The term 'disgust,' in its simplest sense, means something offensive to the taste. It is curious how readily this feeling is excited by anything unusual in the appearance, odour, or nature of our food. In Tierra del Fuego a native touched with his finger some cold pre-

(257)-served meat which I was eating at our bivouac, and plainly showed utter disgust at its softness; whilst I felt utter disgust at my food being touched by a naked savage, though his hands did not appear dirty. A smear of soup on a man's beard looks disgusting, though there is of course nothing disgusting in the soup itself. I presume that this follows from the strong association in our minds between the sight of food, however circumstanced, and the idea of eating it.

As the sensation of disgust primarily arises in connection with the act of eating or tasting, it is natural that its expression should consist chiefly in movements round the mouth. But as disgust also causes annoyance, it is generally accompanied by a frown, and often by gestures as if to push away or to guard oneself against the offensive object. In the two photographs (figs. 2 and 3, on Plate V.) Mr. Rejlander has simulated this expression with some success. With respect to the face,  moderate disgust is exhibited in various ways; by the mouth being widely opened, as if to let an offensive morsel drop out; by spitting; by blowing out of the protruded lips; or by a sound as of clearing the throat. Such guttural sounds are written ach or ugh; and their utterance is sometimes accompanied by a shudder, the arms being pressed close to the sides and the shoulders raised in the same manner as when horror is experienced.[7] Extreme disgust is expressed by movements round the month identical with those preparatory to the act of vomiting. The mouth is opened widely, with the upper lip strongly retracted, which wrinkles the sides of the nose, and with the lower lip protruded and everted as much as possible. This latter movement requires the

(258) contraction of the muscles which draw downwards the corners of the mouth.[8]

It is remarkable how readily and instantly retching or actual vomiting is induced in some persons by the mere idea of having partaken of any unusual food, as of an animal which is not commonly eaten; although there is nothing in such food to cause the stomach to reject it. When vomiting results, as a reflex action, from some real cause-- as from too rich food, or tainted meat, or from an emetic--it does not ensue immediately, but generally after a considerable interval of time. Therefore, to account for retching or vomiting being so quickly and easily excited by a mere idea, the suspicion arises that our progenitors must formerly have had the power (like that possessed by ruminants and some other animals) of voluntarily rejecting food which disagreed with them, or which they thought would disagree with them; and now, though this power has been lost, as far as the will is concerned, it is called into involuntary action, through the force of a formerly well-established habit, whenever the mind revolts at the idea of having partaken of any kind of food, or at anything disgusting. This suspicion receives support from the fact, of which I am assured by Mr. Sutton, that the monkeys in the Zoological Gardens often vomit whilst in perfect health, which looks as if the act were voluntary. We can see that as man is able to communicate by language to his children and others, the knowledge of the kinds of food to be avoided, he would have little occasion to use the faculty of voluntary rejection; so that this power would tend to be lost through disuse.


As the sense of smell is so intimately connected with that of taste, it is not surprising that an excessively bad odour should excite retching or vomiting in some persons, quite as readily as the thought of revolting food does; and that, as a further consequence, a moderately offensive odour should cause the various expressive movements of disgust. The tendency to retch from a fetid odour is immediately strengthened in a curious manner by some degree of habit, though soon lost by longer familiarity with the cause of offence and by voluntary restraint. For instance, I wished to clean the skeleton of a bird, which had not been sufficiently macerated, and the smell made my servant and myself (we not having had much experience in such work) retch so violently, that we were compelled to desist. During the previous days I had examined some other skeletons, which smelt slightly; yet the odour did not in the least affect me, but, subsequently for several days, whenever I handled these same skeletons, they made me retch.

From the answers received from my correspondents it appears that the various movements, which have now been described as expressing contempt and disgust, prevail throughout a large part of the world. Dr. Rothrock, for instance, answers with a decided affirmative with respect to certain wild Indian tribes of North America. Crantz says that when a Greenlander denies anything with contempt or horror he turns up his nose, and gives a slight sound through it.[9] Mr. Scott has sent me a graphic description of the face of a young Hindoo at the sight of castor-oil, which he was compelled occasionally to take. Mr. Scott has also seen the same expression on the faces of high-caste natives who have

(260) approached close to some defiling object. Mr. Bridges says that the Fuegians "express contempt by shooting out the lips and hissing through them, and by turning up the nose." The tendency either to snort through the nose, or to make a noise expressed by ugh or ach, is noticed by several of my correspondents.

Spitting seems an almost universal sign of contempt or disgust; and spitting obviously represents the rejection of anything offensive from the mouth. Shakspeare makes the Duke of Norfolk say, "I spit at him-- call him a slanderous coward and a villain." So, again, Falstaff says, "Tell thee what, Hal,--if I tell thee a lie, spit in my face." Leichhardt remarks that the Australians "interrupted their speeches by spitting, and uttering a noise like pooh! pooh! apparently expressive of their disgust." And Captain Burton speaks of certain negroes "spitting with disgust upon the ground." Captain Speedy informs me that this is likewise the case with the Abyssinians. Mr. Geach says that with the Malays of Malacca the expression of disgust "answers to spitting from the mouth;" and with the Fuegians, according to Mr. Bridges "to spit at one is the highest mark of contempt."

I never saw disgust more plainly expressed than on the face of one of my infants at the age of five months, when, for the first time, some cold water, and again a month afterwards, when a piece of ripe cherry was put into his mouth. This was shown by the lips and whole mouth assuming a shape which allowed the contents to run or fall quickly out; the tongue being likewise protruded. These movements were accompanied by a little shudder. It was all the more comical, as I doubt whether

(261) the child felt real disgust-- the eyes and forehead expressing much surprise and consideration. The protrusion of the tongue in letting a nasty object fall out of the mouth, may explain how it is that lolling out the tongue universally serves as a sign of contempt and hatred.[11]

We have now seen that scorn, disdain, contempt, and disgust are expressed in many different ways, by movements of the features, and by various gestures; and that these are the same throughout the world. They all consist of actions representing the rejection or exclusion of some real object which we dislike or abhor, but which does not excite in us certain other strong emotions, such as rage or terror; and through the force of habit and association similar actions are performed, whenever any analogous sensation arises in our minds.

Jealousy, Envy, Avarice, Revenge, Suspicion, Deceit, Slyness, Guilt, Vanity, Conceit, Ambition, Pride, Humility, &c.--It is doubtful whether the greater number of the above complex states of mind are revealed by any fixed expression, sufficiently distinct to be described or delineated. When Shakspeare speaks of Envy as lean-faced, or black, or pale, and Jealousy as "the green-eyed monster;" and when Spenser describes Suspicion as "foul, ill-favoured, and grim," they must have felt this difficulty. Nevertheless, the above feelings--at least many of them--can be detected by the eye; for instance, conceit; but we are often guided in a much greater degree than we suppose by our previous knowledge of the persons or circumstances.

My correspondents almost unanimously answer in the affirmative to my query, whether the expression

(262) of guilt and deceit can be recognized amongst the various races of man; and I have confidence in their answers, as they generally deny that jealousy can thus be recognized. In the cases in which details are given, the eyes are almost always referred to. The guilty man is said to avoid looking at his accuser, or to give him stolen looks. The eyes are said "to be turned askant," or "to waver from side to side," or "the eyelids to be lowered and partly closed." This latter remark is made by Mr. Hagenauer with respect to the Australians, and by Gaika with respect to the Kafirs. The restless movements of the eyes apparently follow, as will be explained when we treat of blushing, from the guilty man not enduring to meet the gaze of his accuser. I may add, that I have observed a guilty expression, without a shade of fear, in some of my own children at a very early age. In one instance the expression was unmistakably clear in a child two years and seven months old, and led to the detection of his little crime. It was shown, as I record in my notes made at the time, by an unnatural brightness in the eyes, and by an odd, affected manner, impossible to describe.

Slyness is also, I believe, exhibited chiefly by movements about the eyes; for these are less under the control of the will, owing to the force of long-continued habit, than are the movements of the body. Mr. Herbert Spencer remarks,[12] "When there is a desire to see something on one side of the visual field without being supposed to see it,the tendency is to check the conspicuous movement of the head, and to make the required adjustment entirely with the eyes; which are, therefore, drawn very much to one side. Hence, when the eyes are turned to one side, while the face is not

(263) turned to the same side, we get the natural language of what is called slyness."

Of all the above-named complex emotions, Pride, perhaps, is the most plainly expressed. A proud man exhibits his sense of superiority over others by holding his head and body erect. He is haughty (haut), or high, and makes himself appear as large as possible; so that metaphorically he is said to be swollen or puffed up with pride. A peacock or a turkey-cock strutting about with puffed-up feathers, is sometimes said to be an emblem of pride.[13] The arrogant man looks down on others, and with lowered eyelids hardly condescends to see them; or he may show his contempt by slight movements, such as those before described, about the nostrils or lips. Hence the muscle which everts the lower lip has been called the musculus superbus. In some photographs of patients affected by a monomania of pride, sent me by Dr. Crichton Browne, the head and body were held erect, and the mouth firmly closed. This latter action, expressive of decision, follows, I presume, from the proud man feeling perfect self-confidence in himself. The whole expression of pride stands in direct antithesis to that of humility; so that nothing need here be said of the latter state of mind.

Helplessness, Impotence: Shrugging the shoulders.--When a man wishes to show that he cannot do something, or prevent something being done, he often raises with a quick movement both shoulders. At the same time, if the whole gesture is completed, he bends his elbows closely inwards, raises his open hands, turning

(264) them outwards, with the fingers separated. The head is often thrown a little on one side; the eyebrows are elevated, and this causes wrinkles across the forehead. The mouth is generally opened. I may mention, in order to show how unconsciously the features are thus acted on, that though I had often intentionally shrugged my shoulders to observe how my arms were placed, I was not at all aware that my eyebrows were raised and mouth opened, until I looked at myself in a glass; and since then I have noticed the same movements in the faces of others. In the accompanying Plate VI., figs. 3 and 4, Mr. Rejlander has successfully acted the gesture of shrugging the shoulders.

Englishmen are much less demonstrative than the men of most other European nations, and they shrug their shoulders far less frequently and energetically than Frenchmen or Italians do. The gesture varies in all degrees from the complex movement, just described, to only a momentary and scarcely perceptible raising of both shoulders; or, as I have noticed in a lady sitting in an arm-chair, to the mere turning slightly outwards of the open hands with separated fingers. I have never seen very young English children shrug their shoulders, but the following case was observed with care by a medical professor and excellent observer, and has been communicated to me by him. The father of this gentleman was a Parisian, and his mother a Scotch lady. His wife is of British extraction on both sides, and my informant does not believe that she ever shrugged her shoulders in her life. His children have been reared in England, and the nursemaid is a thorough Englishwoman, who has never been seen to shrug her shoulders. Now, his eldest daughter was observed to shrug her shoulders at the age of between sixteen and eighteen months; her mother exclaiming at the time, "Look at

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(265) the little French girl shrugging her shoulders!" At first she often acted thus, sometimes throwing her head a little backwards and on one side, but she did not, as far as was observed, move her elbows and hands in the usual manner. The habit gradually wore away, and now, when she is a little over four years old, she is never seen to act thus. The father is told that he sometimes shrugs his shoulders, especially when arguing with any one; but it is extremely improbable that his daughter should have imitated him at so early an age; for, as he remarks, she could not possibly have often seen this gesture in him. Moreover, if the habit had been acquired through imitation, it is not probable that it would so soon have been spontaneously discontinued by this child, and, as we shall immediately see, by a second child, though the father still lived with his family. This little girl, it may be added, resembles her Parisian grandfather in countenance to an almost absurd degree. She also presents another and very curious resemblance to him, namely, by practising a singular trick. When she impatiently wants something, she holds out her little hand, and rapidly rubs the thumb against the index and middle finger: now this same trick was frequently performed under the same circumstances by her grandfather.

This gentleman's second daughter also shrugged her shoulders before the age of eighteen months, and afterwards discontinued the habit. It is of course possible that she may have imitated her elder sister; but she continued it after her sister had lost the habit. She at first resembled her Parisian grandfather in a less degree than did her sister at the same age, but now in a greater degree. She likewise practises to the present time the peculiar habit of rubbing together, when impatient, her thumb and two of her fore-fingers.


In this latter case we have a good instance, like those given in a former chapter, of the inheritance of a trick or gesture; for no one, I presume, will attribute to mere coincidence so peculiar a habit as this, which was common to the grandfather and his two grandchildren who had never seen him.

Considering all the circumstances with reference to these children shrugging their shoulders, it can hardly be doubted that they have inherited the habit from their French progenitors, although they have only one quarter French blood in their veins, and although their grandfather did not often shrug his shoulders. There is nothing very unusual, though the fact is interesting, in these children having gained by inheritance a habit during early youth, and then discontinuing it; for it is of frequent occurrence with many kinds of animals that certain characters are retained for a period by the young, and are then lost.

As it appeared to me at one time improbable in a high degree that so complex a gesture as shrugging the shoulders, together with the accompanying movements, should be innate, I was anxious to ascertain whether the blind and deaf Laura Bridgman, who could not have learnt the habit by imitation, practised it. And I have heard, through Dr. Innes, from a lady who has lately had charge of her, that she does shrug her shoulders, turn in her elbows, and raise her eyebrows in the same manner as other people, and under the same circumstances. I was also anxious to learn whether this gesture was practised by the various races of man, especially by those who never have had much intercourse with Europeans. We shall see that they act in this manner; but it appears that the gesture is sometimes confined to merely raising or shrugging the shoulders, without the other movements.


Mr. Scott has frequently seen this gesture in the Bengalees and Dhangars (the latter constituting a distinct race) who are employed in the Botanic Garden at Calcutta; when, for instance, they have declared that they could not do some work, such as lifting a heavy weight. He ordered a Bengalee to climb a lofty tree; but the man, with a shrug of his shoulders and a lateral shake of his head, said he could not. Mr. Scott knowing that the man was lazy, thought he could, and insisted on his trying. His face now became pale, his arms dropped to his sides, his mouth and eyes were widely opened, and again surveying the tree, he looked askant at Mr. Scott, shrugged his shoulders, inverted his elbows, extended his open hands, and with a few quick lateral shakes of the head declared his inability. Mr. H. Erskine has likewise seen the natives of India shrugging their shoulders; but he has never seen the elbows turned so much inwards as with us; and whilst shrugging their shoulders they sometimes lay their uncrossed hands on their breasts.

With the wild Malays of the interior of Malacca, and with the Bugis (true Malays, though speaking a different, language), Mr. Geach has often seen this gesture. I presume that it is complete, as, in answer to my query descriptive of the movements of the shoulders, arms, hands, and face, Mr. Geach remarks, "it is performed in a beautiful style." I have lost an extract from a scientific voyage, in which shrugging the shoulders by some natives (Micronesians) of the Caroline Archipelago in the Pacific Ocean, was well described. Capt. Speedy informs me that the Abyssinians shrug their shoulders but enters into no details. Mrs. Asa Gray saw an Arab dragoman in Alexandria acting exactly as described in my query, when an old gentleman, on whom he attended,

(268) would not go in the proper direction which had been pointed out to him.

Mr. Washington Matthews says, in reference to the wild Indian tribes of the western parts of the United States, "I have on a few occasions detected men using a slight apologetic shrug, but the rest of the demonstration which you describe I have not witnessed." Fritz Muller informs me that he has seen the negroes in Brazil shrugging their shoulders; but it is of course possible that they may have learnt to do so by imitating the Portuguese. Mrs. Barber has never seen this gesture with the Kafirs of South Africa; and Gaika, judging from his answer, did not even understand what was meant by my description. Mr. Swinhoe is also doubtful about the Chinese; but he has seen them, under the circumstances which would make us shrug our shoulders, press their right elbow against their side, raise their eyebrows, lift up their hand with the palm directed towards the person addressed, and shake it from right to left. Lastly, with respect to the Australians, four of my informants answer by a simple negative, and one by a simple affirmative. Mr. Bunnett, who has had excellent opportunities for observation on the borders of the Colony of Victory, also answers by a "yes," adding that the gesture is performed "in a more subdued and less demonstrative manner than is the case with civilized nations." This circumstance may account for its not having been noticed by four of my informants.

These statements, relating to Europeans, Hindoos, the hill-tribes of India, Malays, Micronesians, Abyssinians, Arabs, Negroes, Indians of North America, and apparently to the Australians--many of these natives having had scarcely any intercourse with Europeans--are sufficient to show that shrugging the shoulders, accom-

(269)-panied in some cases by the other proper movements, is a gesture natural to mankind.

This gesture implies an unintentional or unavoidable action on our own part, or one that we cannot perform; or an action performed by another person which we cannot prevent.

It accompanies such speeches as, "It was not my fault;" "It is impossible for me to grant this favour;" "He must follow his own course, I cannot stop him." Shrugging the shoulders likewise expresses patience, or the absence of any intention to resist. Hence the muscles which raise the shoulders are sometimes called, as I have been informed by an artist, the patience muscles." Shylock the Jew, says,

"Signor Antonio, many a time and oft
In the Rialto have you rated me
About my monies and usances;
Still have I borne it with a patient shrug."

 Merchant of Venice, act 1. sc. 3.

Sir C. Bell has given[14] a life-like figure of a man, who is shrinking back from some terrible danger, and is on the point of screaming out in abject terror. He is represented with his shoulders lifted up almost to his ears; and this at once declares that there is no thought of resistance.

As shrugging the shoulders generally implies "I cannot do this or that," so by a slight change, it sometimes implies "I won't do it."  The movement then expresses a dogged determination not to act. Olmsted describes[15] an Indian in Texas as giving a great shrug to his shoulders, when he was informed that a party of men were Germans and not Americans, thus expressing that he would have nothing to do with them. Sulky and

(270) obstinate children may be seen with both their shoulders raised high up; but this movement is not associated with the others which generally accompany a true shrug. An excellent observer[16] in describing a young man who was determined not to yield to his father's desire, says, "He thrust his hands deep down into his pockets, and set up his shoulders to his ears, which was a good warning that, come right or wrong, this rock should fly from its firm base as soon as Jack would; and that any remonstrance on the subject was purely futile." As soon as the son got his own way, he "put his shoulders into their natural position."

Resignation is sometimes shown by the open hands being placed, one over the other, on the lower part of the body. I should not have thought this little gesture worth even a passing notice, had not Dr. W. Ogle remarked to me that he had two or three times observed it in patients who were preparing for operations under chloroform. They exhibited no great fear, but seemed to declare by this posture of their hands, that they had made up their minds, and were resigned to the inevitable.

We may now inquire why men in all parts of the world when they feel,--whether or not they wish to show this feeling,--that they cannot or will not do something, or will not resist something if done by another, shrug their shoulders, at the same time often bending in their elbows, showing the palms of their hands with extended fingers, often throwing their heads a little on one side, raising their eyebrows, and opening their mouths. These states of the mind are either simply passive, or show a determination not to act. None of the above movements are of the least service. The explanation lies,I

(271) cannot doubt, in the principle of unconscious antithesis. This principle here seems to come into play as clearly as in the case of a dog, who, when feeling savage, puts himself in the proper attitude for attacking and for making himself appear terrible to his enemy; but as soon as he feels affectionate, throws his whole body into a directly opposite attitude, though this is of no direct use to him.

Let it be observed how an indignant man, who resents, and will not submit to some injury, holds his head erect, squares his shoulders, and expands his chest. He often clenches his fists, and puts one or both arms in the proper position for attack or defence, with the muscles of his limbs rigid. He frowns,--that is, he contracts and lowers his brows,--and, being determined, closes his mouth. The actions and attitude of a helpless man are, in every one of these respects, exactly the reverse. In Plate VI. we may imagine one of the figures on the left side to have just said, "What do you mean by insulting me?" and one of the figures on the right side to answer, "I really could not help it." The helpless man unconsciously contracts the muscles of his forehead which are antagonistic to those that cause a frown, and thus raises his eyebrows; at the same time he relaxes the muscles about the mouth, so that the lower jaw drops. The antithesis is complete in every detail, not only in the movements of the features, but in the position of the limbs and in the attitude of the whole body, as may be seen in the accompanying plate. As the helpless or apologetic man often wishes to show his state of mind, he then acts in a conspicuous or demonstrative manner.

In accordance with the fact that squaring the elbows and clenching the fists are gestures by no means universal with the men of all races, when they feel indignant and are prepared to attack their enemy, so it appears that a helpless or apologetic frame of mind is ex-

(272)-pressed in many parts of the world by merely shrugging the shoulders, without turning inwards the elbows and opening the hands. The man or child who is obstinate, or one who is resigned to some great misfortune, has in neither case any idea of resistance by active means; and he expresses this state of mind, by simply keeping his shoulders raised; or he may possibly fold his arms across his breast.

Signs of affirmation or approval, and of negation or disapproval: nodding and shaking the head.  -- I was curious to ascertain how far the common signs used by us in affirmation and negation were general throughout the world. These signs are indeed to a certain extent expressive of our feelings, as we give a vertical nod of approval with a smile to our children, when we approve of their conduct; and shake our heads laterally with a frown, when we disapprove. With infants, the first act of denial consists in refusing food; and I repeatedly noticed with my own infants, that they did so by withdrawing their heads laterally from the breast, or from anything offered them in a spoon. In accepting food and taking it into their mouths, they incline their heads forwards. Since making these observations I have been informed that the same idea had occurred to Charma.[17] It deserves notice that in accepting or taking food, there is only a single movement forward, and a single nod implies an affirmation. On the other hand, in refusing food, especially if it be pressed on them, children frequently move their heads several times from side to side, as we do in shaking our heads in negation. Moreover, in the case of refusal, the head is not rarely thrown backwards, or the mouth is closed, so that these movements

(273) might likewise come to serve as signs of negation. Mr. Wedgwood remarks on this subject,[18] that "when the voice is exerted with closed teeth or lips, it produces the sound of the letter n or m. Hence we may account for the use of the particle ne to signify negation, and possibly also of the Greek mh in the same sense."

That these signs are innate or instinctive, at least with Anglo-Saxons, is rendered highly probable by the blind and deaf Laura Bridgman "constantly accompanying her yes with the common affirmative nod, and her no with our negative shake of the head." Had not Mr. Lieber stated to the contrary,[19] I should have imagined that these gestures might have been acquired or learnt by her, considering her wonderful sense of touch and appreciation of the movements of others. With microcephalous idiots, who are so degraded that they never learn to speak, one of them is described by Vogt,[20] as answering, when asked whether he wished for more food or drink, by inclining or shaking his head. Schmalz, in his remarkable dissertation on the education of the deaf and dumb, as well as of children raised only one degree above idiotcy, assumes that they can always both make and understand the common signs of affirmation and negation.[21]

Nevertheless if we look to the various races of man, these signs are not so universally employed as I should have expected; yet they seem too general to be ranked as altogether conventional or artificial. My informants assert that both signs are used by the Malays, by the natives of Ceylon, the Chinese, the negroes of the Guinea

(274) coast, and, according to Gaika, by the Kafirs of South Africa, though with these latter people Mrs. Barber has never seen a lateral shake used as a negative. With respect to the Australians, seven observers agree that a nod is given in affirmation; five agree about a lateral shake in negation, accompanied or not by some word; but Mr. Dyson Lacy has never seen this latter sign in Queensland, and Mr. Bulmer says that in Gipps' Land a negative is expressed by throwing the head a little backwards and putting out the tongue. At the northern extremity of the continent, near Torres Straits, the natives when uttering a negative "don't shake the head with it, but holding up the right hand, shake it by turning it half round and back again two or three times."[22] The throwing back of the head with a cluck of the tongue is said to be used as a negative by the modern Greeks and Turks, the latter people expressing yes by a movement like that made by us when we shake our heads.[23] The Abyssinians, as I am informed by Captain Speedy, express a negative by jerking the head to the right shoulder, together with a slight cluck, the mouth being closed; an affirmation is expressed by the head being thrown backwards and the eyebrows raised for an instant. The Tagals of Luzon, in the Philippine Archipelago, as I hear from Dr. Adolf Meyer, when they say "yes," also throw the head backwards. According to the Rajah Brooke, the Dyaks of Borneo express an affirmation by raising the eyebrows, and a negation by slightly contracting them, together with a peculiar look from the eyes. With the Arabs on the Nile, Professor and Mrs. Asa Gray concluded that nodding in affirmation was rare, whilst

(275) shaking the head in negation was never used, and was not even understood by them. With the Esquimaux[24] a nod means yes and a wink no. The New Zealanders "elevate the head and chin in place of nodding acquiescence."[25]

With the Hindoos Mr. H. Erskine concludes from inquiries made from experienced Europeans, and from native gentlemen, that the signs of affirmation and negation vary--a nod and a lateral shake being sometimes used as we do; but a negative is more commonly expressed by the head being thrown suddenly backwards and a little to one side, with a cluck of the tongue. What the meaning may be of this cluck of the tongue, which has been observed with various people, I cannot imagine. A native gentleman stated that affirmation is frequently shown by the head being thrown to the left. I asked Mr. Scott to attend particularly to this point, and, after repeated observations, he believes that a vertical nod is not commonly used by the natives in affirmation, but that the head is first thrown backwards either to the left or right, and then jerked obliquely forwards only once. This movement would perhaps have been described by a less careful observer as a lateral shake. He also states that in negation the head is usually held nearly upright, and shaken several times.

Mr. Bridges informs me that the Fuegians nod their heads vertically in affirmation, and shake them laterally in denial. With the wild Indians of North America, according to Mr. Washington Matthews, nodding and shaking the head have been learnt from Europeans, and are not naturally employed. They express affirmation by describing with the hand (all the fingers except the

(276) index being flexed) a curve downwards and outwards from the body, whilst negation is expressed by moving the open hand outwards, with the palm facing inwards." Other observers state that the sign of affirmation with these Indians is the forefinger being raised, and then lowered and pointed to the ground, or the hand is waved straight forward from the face; and that the sign of negation is the finger or whole hand shaken from side to side.[26] This latter movement probably represents in all cases the lateral shaking of the head. The Italians are said in like manner to move the lifted finger from right to left in negation, as indeed we English sometimes do.

On the whole we find considerable diversity in the signs of affirmation and negation in the different races of man. With respect to negation, if we admit that the shaking of the finger or hand from side to side is symbolic of the lateral movement of the head; and if we admit that the sudden backward movement of the head represents one of the actions often practised by young children in refusing food, then there is much uniformity throughout the world in the signs of negation, and we can see how they originated. The most marked exceptions are presented by the Arabs, Esquimaux, some Australian tribes, and Dyaks. With the latter a frown is the sign of negation, and with us frowning often accompanies a lateral shake of the head.

With respect to nodding in affirmation, the exceptions are rather more numerous, namely with some of the Hindoos, with the Turks, Abyssinians, Dyaks, Tagals, and New Zealanders. The eyebrows are sometimes raised in affirmation, and as a person in bending

(277) his head forwards and downwards naturally looks up to the person whom he addresses, he will be apt to raise his eyebrows, and this sign may thus have arisen as an abbreviation. So again with the New Zealanders, the lifting up the chin and head in affirmation may perhaps represent in an abbreviated form the upward movement of the head after it has been nodded forwards and downwards.



  1. 'De In Physionomie et la Parole,' 1865, p. 89.
  2. 'Physionomie Humaine,' Album, Legende viii. p. 35. Gratiolet also speaks (De la Phys. 1865, p. 52) of the turning away of the eyes and body.
  3. Dr. W. Ogle, in an interesting paper on the Sense of Smell ('Medico-Chirurgical Transactions,' vol. liii. p. 268), shows that when we wish to smell carefully, instead of taking one deep nasal inspiration, we draw in the air by a succession of rapid short sniffs. If "the nostrils be watched during this process, it will be seen that, so far from dilating, they actually contract at each sniff. The contraction does not include the whole anterior opening, but only the posterior portion." He then explains the cause of this movement. When, on the other hand, we wish to exclude any odour, the contraction, I presume, affects only the anterior part of the nostrils.
  4. 'Mimik und Physiognomik,' ss. 84, 93. Gratiolet (ibid. p. 155) takes nearly the same view with Dr. Piderit respecting the expression of contempt and disgust.
  5. Scorn implies a strong form of contempt; and one of the roots of the word 'scorn' means, according to Mr. Wedgwood (Dict. of English Etymology, vol. iii. p. 125), ordure or dirt.
  6. 'Early History of Mankind,' 2nd edit. 1870, p. 45.
  7. See, to this effect, Mr. Hensleigh Wedgwood's Introduction to the 'Dictionary of English Etymology,' 2nd edit. 1872, p. xxxvii.
  8. Duchenne believes that in the eversion of the lower lip, the corners are drawn downwards by the depressores anguli oris. Henle (Handbuch d. Anat. des Menschen, 1858, B. i. s. 151) concludes that this is effected by the musculus quadratus menti.
  9. As quoted by Tylor, 'Primitive Culture,' 1871, vol. i. p. 169.
  10. Both these quotations are given by Mr. H. Wedgwood, 'On the Origin of Language,' 1866, p. 75.
  11. This is stated to be the case by Mr. Tylor (Early Hist. of Mankind, 2nd edit. 1870, p. 52); and he adds, "it is not clear why this should be so."
  12. 'Principles of Psychology,' 2nd edit. 1872, p. 552.
  13. Gratiolet (De la Phys. p. 351) makes this remark, and has some good observations on the expression of pride. See Sir C. Bell ('Anatomy of Expression,' p. 111) on the action of the musculus superbus.
  14. 'Anatomy of Expression,' p. 166.
  15. 'Journey through Texas,' p. 352.
  16. Mrs. Oliphant, 'The Brownlows,' vol. ii. p. 206.
  17. 'Essai sur le Langage,' 2nd edit. 1846. I am much indebted to Miss Wedgwood for having given me this information, with an extract from the work.
  18. 'On the Origin of Language,' 1866, p. 91.
  19. 'On the Vocal Sounds of L. Bridgman;' Smithsonian Contributions, 1851, vol. ii. p. 11.
  20. 'Memoire sur les Microcephales,' 1867, p. 27.
  21. Quoted by Tylor, 'Early History of Mankind,' 2nd edit. 1870, p. 38.
  22. Mr. J. B. Jukes, 'Letters and Extracts,' &c. 1871, p. 248.
  23. F. Lieber, 'On the Vocal Sounds,' &c. p. 11. Tylor, ibid. p. 53.
  24. Dr. King, Edinburgh Phil. Journal, 1845, p. 313.
  25. Tylor, 'Early History of Mankind,' 2nd edit. 1870, p. 53.
  26. Lubbock, 'The Origin of Civilization,' 1870, p. 277. Tylor, ibid. p. 38. Lieber (ibid. p. 11) remarks on the negative of the Italians.

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