Air tickle

Today’s One Big Happy turns on two interpretations of the same gesture, intended by Avis as an air quote (two fingers on each hand) pointedly framing the word mature as euphemistic, but seen by Ruthie as a threat to tickle her with those same four fingers:

Air quotes I’m long familiar with, but tickle sign (as used here; there is an ASL sign for TICKLE, of course) or tickle gesture I’m not, though they seem clear enough.

Even within a single community of use, gestures, like linguistic expressions, can easily be ambiguous, and of course the same gesture can notoriously convey different things in different communities and at different times.

As for air quotes, here’s Wikipedia:

Air quotes, also called “finger quotes” or “ersatz quotes” are virtual quotation marks formed in the air with one’s fingers when speaking. This is typically done with hands held shoulder-width apart and at the eye level of the speaker [though performances lower on the body are not unknown], with the index and middle fingers on each hand flexing at the beginning and end of the phrase being quoted. The air-quoted phrase is — in the most common usage — very short, at most a few words. Air quotes are often used to express satire, sarcasm, irony or euphemism, among others, and are analogous to scare quotes in print.

Use of similar gestures has been recorded as early as 1927. The term “air quotes” first appeared in a 1989 Spy Magazine article by Paul Rudnick and Kurt Anderson, who state it became a common gesture about 1980.

The gesture was used routinely in the TV show Celebrity Charades (1979) as the standard signal for a quote or phrase.

The index and middle finger are lowered twice.

The trend became very popular in the 1990s, attributed by many to comedian Steve Martin, who often used them with exaggerated emphasis in his stand-up shows. Another popularization of air quotes was the character Bennett Brauer, played on the sketch comedy show Saturday Night Live by Chris Farley, an aggressive but socially awkward commentator who used air quotes to mock societal expectations of him. Additionally, in the blockbuster Austin Powers film franchise, Dr. Evil makes exaggerated use of air quotes when explaining matters to his henchmen, particularly while using real phrases he erroneously believes himself to have coined such as “laser” and “Death Star.”

The gesture also figured prominently in the American sitcom Friends.

I haven’t found any videos with depictions of tickle threats using this gesture, though I’ve certainly seen them, accompanied by words along the lines of “I’m gonna TICKLE you!”

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