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Sign, Sign, Everywhere a Sign

Decoding the meaning of physical gestures and things

The next time you light up a cigarette, you might find yourself being watched by a semiotician in search of signals you may be unwittingly giving off.

In his book, Of Cigarettes, High Heels and Other Interesting Things, due to be re-released early next year, Professor Marcel Danesi, of anthropology, decodes the meaning associated with certain contemporary gestures and dress, such as smoking, makeup and jewellery.

In the opening chapter, Danesi observes a couple, Cheryl and Ted, in a courtship ritual. They are smoking in a restaurant (clearly not Toronto in 2006), and Cheryl is wearing high heels, which “allow her to send out powerful sexual signals, including a sense of domination tinged with sensuality.”

The contrast between Cheryl’s smoking gestures (she holds the cigarette between her index and middle fingers, places it in the centre of her lips and exhales upward), and Ted’s (he holds the cigarette between his thumb and middle finger, places it at the side of his mouth and exhales downward) provides an interesting tableau for semiotic analysis. Danesi says this conduct stems from the jazz clubs of the early 20th century and from such classic films as Casablanca and Rebel Without a Cause.

A “sign” in semiotician-speak “represents something observed, perceived, felt or thought,” and a “code” is the framework for these signs and allows individuals to derive meaning from them. The couple’s smoking is considered a non-verbal code, and research indicates that humans transmit most of their messages through the body, not words. “We have the capacity to produce up to 700,000 distinct physical signs, of which 1,000 are different bodily postures, 5,000 are hand gestures and 250,000 are facial expressions,” writes Danesi. Other non-verbal codes include kissing, dancing, gazing and the use of cosmetics, and most are rooted in tribal and ancient cultures.

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