The Shaka: Meaning and History

The Shaka hand gesture is ubiquitous in surfing communities all over the world.

Performed by tucking the three middle fingers into the palm, extending the thumb and pinky fingers, and waving back and forth, it's a way of saying "everything's okay", "hang loose", and "take care", but it has also been used as a standard greeting.

Although it comes from Hawaii, the Shaka sign can now be seen all over the world, from the beaches of California to the shores of Australia.

But what is the origin of the Shaka and how did it become associated with surf culture?

The Origins of the Shaka

No one really knows where, when, or how the Shaka was born, but there are a few different stories.

The most common origin story suggests that the Shaka sign came from Hamana Kalili, a native of Laie, Hawaii.

Legend has it that he lost his three middle fingers while working at the Kahuku sugar mill.

He was given a job as a security guard on the sugar cane railroad shortly thereafter and would wave his hands at the kids who tried to steal from the sugar cane train.

The gesture was then adopted by the kids who used it as an "all clear", letting everyone know that they were free to take the cane.

As for the name, the story goes that Hamana Kalili would pretend that his hand was a hammerhead shark, with his missing fingers serving as the head of the shark and his thumb and pinky as the eyes.

He would chase the kids around shouting "shark eyes", and this eventually evolved into "Shaka".

It's a cute story, if true, but there are a lot of elements, and history is rarely that interesting or neat.

Another theory attributes it to an entertainer named Lippy Espinda, and while it's unlikely that he invented it, there is a good chance that he made it more popular.

A muddier and less defined theory suggests that it comes from Spanish immigrants, who used it to simulate the act of taking a drink.

Apparently, they would fold their three middle fingers and “drink” from the thumb to ask the natives if they wanted to share a drink with them.

There could be some truth to this, as a similar hand sign is used in Australia and Russia to denote drinking.

The sign has also been used to indicate "call me", although in such cases it is pressed against the side of the head like a phone.

The Truth about the Shaka Sign

The truth is, we don't know for certain where or how the Shaka sign was invented as history isn't always very clear on these things.

We see something similar with many other hand gestures, phrases, greetings, and other cultural quirks.

Take the "V" sign, for instance. The act of holding your two fingers up in a "V" shape is said to denote victory, as famously performed by Winston Churchill, but if you flip those fingers around, it's a rude gesture in the United Kingdom.

As with the history of the Shaka, everyone has convinced themselves that this salute comes from a single moment in time.

The story goes that English archers would use the sign to taunt the French prior to the battle of Agincourt.

If they were caught, the French would cut off their two fingers and then ransom the archers back to the English.

That way, they couldn't draw their bow, wouldn't be able to fight another day, and the English would lose their secret weapon.

It's an interesting tale, but you needed three fingers to draw an English longbow, not two, and there is no record of this taunt existing for hundreds of years after the battle.

Desmond Morris in his book "Gestures: Their Origins and Distributions" wrote that it was "passed on from generation to generation by people who simply accept it as a recognized obscenity without bothering to analyze it."

Such is the case with the Shaka. Maybe it all came from a man who guarded the sugar cane truck and joked around with a bunch of kids.

Maybe it morphed from the sign for "sharing a drink".

Maybe it had another meaning entirely.

We'll probably never know its true past, but at least future historians will understand its association with surf culture and its current "hang loose" or "everything's okay" meaning.

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