When I spent a year as an exchange student at the University of Illinois, (ahem) years ago, I took a British History class. (To be honest, I saw it as a route to some easy credit.) One of the recommended texts was an American-published book about Winston Churchill. Whenever we saw this book, the small group of Brits in the class tended to snigger quietly to themselves, while our fellow students looked on with some bemusement. We tried to explain why we found it so funny, but I don’t think they all understood.
Here’s the cover:
If you’re British you’ll understand instantly what’s wrong with this picture. If you’re American, you may not. (Not sure about Australians – I’m not an expert in antipodean hand gestures – maybe someone could enlighten me?) If you don’t understand, here’s the thing: in the UK at least, the two-fingered ‘V for Victory’ salute, so beloved of dear Winston, absolutely has to be done palm-forward. If you give the ‘salute’ as shown on this cover, showing the back of the fingers, it means something rather different. I mean, completely different.
Actually, I’m not completely sure exactly what it does mean. But it sure ain’t ‘victory’. It’s more like the one-fingered salute, which is pretty much equally insulting on both sides of the Atlantic and probably in many other places across the globe too. In short, it’s not nice, and old Winny would never have dreamt of doing it. (Certainly not in public anyway. I’m guessing he may have deployed it against Hitler though, had they ever met.)
Of course this book was published in the US, where the mistake would have been entirely innocent and which probably 99% of the book’s readers would have seen nothing wrong with. Until a British student stumbled across it, that is.
I like to think of how this cover may have come about. Just imagine …
Designer: Hey, I’ve got this stock photo of Winston Churchill. Can I just sketch from this?
Publisher: Sure … though it’s a shame he’s not doing that ‘V for Victory’ thing. Can you add that in?
Designer: No problem. I mean, how hard can it be …?
Some heavyweight theses have no doubt been written on the whole subject of hand gestures and how they vary between cultures, and how something totally innocuous in one country could lead to a major street brawl in another.
I’ve still got this book, one of the few I’ve kept from my student days. Not for the content of course, but for the cover which still makes me giggle like a smutty teenager whenever I see it.
One final thing: this book is still available on Amazon, though it doesn’t look like a new edition has been published since the 1980s – but there’s no cover image. I wonder why …