The Secret Origins of 7 Extremely Important Actions

(Image credit: Keith Allison)

From high-fives to air quotes, these smooth moves had to start somewhere.

1. THE FIST BUMP

The fist bump received its 15 minutes of fame most recently when President Barack Obama knocked knuckles with wife Michelle after clinching the 2008 Democratic nomination. Some credit the move to baseball Hall of Famer and apparent germaphobe Stan Musial, who bumped fists instead of shaking hands to avoid catching colds. But it’s more likely that the gesture took off during the Vietnam War, where it was one of a number of “dap” greetings—stylized handshakes—popularized by African American soldiers.

2. AIR GUITAR

(Image credit: Anitagraser)

In 1957, a dozen years before Joe Cocker established himself as a virtuoso on the invisible instrument, Bill Reed of the Canadian vocal group the Diamonds performed a short but suave air guitar solo halfway through the group’s rendition of Buddy Holly’s “Words of Love.” Today, some 10,000 people attend the Air Guitar World Championships in Finland.

3. PULLING A RABBIT OUT OF A HAT

(YouTube link)

Billed as “the King’s Conjurer,” Louis Comte was Louis XVIII’s personal magician. He also performed throughout Paris, and, as top hats became more fashionable, he began borrowing people’s lids to conjure up various objects—including rabbits. It took until the 1840s for Scottish magician John Henry Anderson—“the Great Wizard of the North”—to popularize the trick.

4. THE HIGH FIVE

The high five’s origin is contested, but it certainly got a boost in 1977 from Glenn Burke, the charismatic rookie outfielder for the Los Angeles Dodgers. When teammate Dusty Baker hit his 30th home run on the last game of the regular season, Burke couldn’t contain his excitement. As Baker crossed home plate, Burke excitedly threw his arm in the air. Not knowing what to do, Baker lifted his arm, too. They slapped palms, and the move swept the clubhouse.

5. AIR QUOTES

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The first person to make history by punctuating with her hands, as noted in the Oxford English Dictionary, was described by a writer in the July 1927 edition of Science: “Some years ago I knew a very intelligent young woman who used to inform us that her ‘bright sayings’ were not original by raising both hands above her head with the first and second fingers pointing upward. Her fingers were her ‘quotation marks’ and were very easily understood.”

6. THE WHEELIE

Daniel Canary bought his first penny-farthing bike while working as a telegraph messenger and quickly became a local celebrity. In 1884, he rode down the steps of the U.S. Capitol building to great fanfare. In 1890, Canary tackled the “safety bike”— a new model we now just call the bicycle— popping a wheelie at Niagara Falls. As the Chicago Tribune reported: “Mr. Canary believes he was the first rider to perform the feat ... then regarded as impossible, of riding on the rear wheel, with the front wheel elevated.”

7. THE SELFIE

Just months after Louis Daguerre announced his invention to the French Academy of Sciences in early 1839, a young Robert Cornelius set up a camera fitted with an opera glass in the backyard of his family’s Philadelphia store. He pointed the lens of the newfangled camera at himself and waited ... and waited. (Exposures for early cameras took up to 15 minutes.) He’d have to wait about 170 years for someone to finally invent an explanatory hashtag.

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The above article by Julie Winterbottom is reprinted with permission from the May 2015 issue of mental_floss magazine.

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