The Book of Human Emotions: From Ambiguphobia to Umpty - 154 Words from Around the World for How We Feel - Tiffany Watt Smith 2016


Glee has never been entirely innocent. When the Norsemen arrived in England, bringing their language with them, glý, or glíw, or glew meant “sport” and “mockery.” A glew was also the word for a song, loud and drunken, and Chamber-glew was shorthand for lewd behavior. To be motivated by golde and glie was frowned upon: it meant living in search of cash and wanton pleasure. In the seventeenth century “glee” shed some of this raucousness when it was co-opted by choir masters to describe a very precise kind of unaccompanied contrapuntal singing, a rather more staid version of the style now favored by American high school glee clubs. But today glee retains its dastardly edge. After a series of security leaks in 2013, the head of MI6 imagined Al-Qaeda terrorists “rubbing their hands with glee.” This glee is a malevolent thrill, a celebration of one’s own good fortune at another’s expense (see: SCHADENFREUDE).

Body language experts disagree about the exact origins of gleeful hand rubbing, though all link it—like gleaming eyes and lip smacking—to anticipating something good coming our way. Various evolutionary tales have been ventured. Standing around in a cold cave, ready to tuck into roasted elk, for instance, our ancestors would rub their hands together to make the blood circulate faster and their fingers more nimble to pick at the flesh. Or: hand rubbing is a way of dissipating the anxious tension that is part of expectancy. Or: it’s a milder version of a baby’s delighted clap. Or: it comes from an ancient requirement that we cleanse our hands before receiving a gift.

But why then should it have become associated with supervillains in Hollywood films? (No one really rubs their hands in glee, do they? It’s only ever a camp gesture, done in quotation marks. Members of Al-Qaeda are even less likely to—the gesture is rarely seen in Arabic countries.)

The answer can be found in John Bulwer’s 1644 guide to hand gestures, Chirologia or The Naturall Language of the Hand, which describes two types of hand rubbing. One is rubbing the palms together as if clapping, a gesture Bulwer associates with greediness. The other, Gestus XI: “Innocentiam ostendo” (“The performance of innocence”), is an imitation of hand washing, which Bulwer links to the cleansing of imagined bloodstains—the sort of gesture Lady Macbeth might be found doing. It’s for this reason that hand rubbing became so gleefully villainous: actors resorted to rubbing their hands to tip off the audience that their character, who seemed oh so innocent, was in fact very guilty indeed.