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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    A point of order: If, as @curiousdannii writes, we don't generally do etymology questions here, then why do we have an "etymology" tag? Jan 19, 2020 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. Jan 19, 2020 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, 2020 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... Jan 21, 2020 at 1:18
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    Note that in intimate circumstances, you can place your finger on the other person's lips, and this may have been the original form.
    – amI
    Jan 21, 2020 at 6:51

1 Answer 1


First (since I can't comment just yet), I'd like to say that shh is in the Merriam-Webster dictionary as an interjection. It also has an etymology.

However, in regards to the act of using the index finger in coorelation with shushing, I did find a couple references. To sum up: the placing of the index finger on the lips possibly originates from the Roman mapping of gods to finger. Jupiter was mapped to the index finger. The index finger was also raised to gain attention.

There's also speculation for an earlier attribution:

Our common symbol for silence, placing the finger on the lips, dates back to a Greek understanding of an Egyptian god. To the Egyptians, the newborn sun of each day was the child Horus, shown at dawn as a small toddler sucking on his finger. The Greeks took this as an image of secrecy concerning his Mysteries, enjoining silence. They called the child Horus Harpocrates, God of Silence, and invoked him by the finger-to-mouth gesture

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