One new Pinching Hand 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 the 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.