I'm curious about the origin of and explanation for the place-index-finger-to-closed-lips gesture. All I've found so far is this unattributed assertion that it dates at least to the era of Classical Rome.

For instance, consider two gestures of similar meaning:

  1. With one's thumb against one's curled index finger, twisting the hand in front of one's closed lips. Plainly, this gesture is iconic, suggesting the act of turning a key in a lock to convey the meaning, "My lips are sealed."

  2. Again with thumb and index finger pressed together, move them along one's closed lips. This gesture too is iconic. Here it's the act of closing a zipper (in UK, a zip), and conveys the similar, "I'll keep my lips zipped."

But is the shush gesture iconic? If so, then of what? Also, how widely distributed across cultures is its use? We're told (vide supra) that the Romans used it...

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    Oh good grief. There is obviously a reason they put "(?)" in the title, and gestual communication is definitely part of human language. Understudied, if anything, but still studied to some extent. – LjL Jan 19 '20 at 21:54
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    A point of order: If, as @curiousdannii writes, we don't generally do etymology questions here, then why do we have an "etymology" tag? – Paul Tanenbaum Jan 19 '20 at 23:04
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    @curiousdannii, your assessment strikes me as absolute. If the gesture happened to be in the lexicon of, say, American Sign Language, then it would unquestionably be a linguistic form. Nor do I see much relevant distance between this gesture, which is plainly a communicative sign, and any word in ASL. And by the way, I really am very curious to understand your sense of the distinction between good etymology questions and bad. – Paul Tanenbaum Jan 19 '20 at 23:34
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    The iconicity seems obvious: the finger is a kind of bar placed over the lips -- you're not just closing the mouth but placing an obstruction over it to keep it closed. – TKR Jan 21 '20 at 0:26
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    Yes, @TKR, that it involves some obstruction does seem clear. But at least to my eyes, the particular nature of the obstruction is far less unambiguously on offer than are locking a lock and zipping a zipper. Maybe to your average Roman citizen the image was obvious... – Paul Tanenbaum Jan 21 '20 at 1:18

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