Although mechanical voting machines are largely a thing of the past, you might remember the large, manual contraptions, their satisfying click as levers were pushed down, and a familiar symbol: little silhouettes of hands pointing to party lines. The symbol in question has gone by many names throughout history. Most commonly called the “printer’s fist” today, historically it also went by the name of manicule. William Sherman’s “Toward a History of the Manicule” points to the origins, use, and meaning of this handy icon. He notes that manicules (from the Latin manicula, or “little hand”) hail from 12th century Spain as a directional device in manuscript marginalia. But it’s not until the 18th or 19th century that the manicule becomes ubiquitous shorthand for “look here.” Sherman asserts that “printer’s fist” is printer-speak for the symbol, used extensively in pamphlets, broadsides and signage during the golden age of letterpress printing. And the printer’s fist is enjoying a resurgence in the letterpress revival. Transcending its original function as an anthropomorphic arrow, it has invaded pop culture–from Monty Python animation to contemporary typophiles’ tattoos.
The essence of the manicule / printer’s fist as universal pointer may not lie anywhere in its academic history. Rather, it may be man’s best friend who most clearly demonstrates the impact of the pointing finger. Recent research has shown that part of the long-standing, uncanny bond between dogs and people relates to canines’ ability to comprehend human gestures, including pointing. Not even our fellow primates have an innate recognition of this common gesture of non-verbal communication. Our interactions with dogs can teach us much about our own nature, including the power of a pointing index finger to convey direction and importance in both text and spatial situations. Got it? Good boy!
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