Suzanne Perez Tobias

Thumbs up for the Wichita State hand gesture — if you want to keep it clean

If you’ve attended a Wichita State University basketball game or watched one on television, you’ve seen it:

Fans waving the “Shocker” hand sign — ring finger down, pointer and middle fingers together, pinkie and thumb outstretched.

Like “Hook ‘em Horns” down in Texas, the Shocker sign has become ubiquitous at Koch Arena. Cheerleaders do it. Band members do it. It has appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated.

Even Jay Golden, Wichita State’s new president, smiled and flashed the hand sign during his introduction to the university community last week.

So here’s where this column gets a little PG-13. But stick with me.

According to legend (and a quick Urban Dictionary search), the hand gesture — or something shockingly similar — has nefarious origins, the details of which we can’t spell out in a family newspaper. There’s a sexual connotation and a long list of vulgar euphemisms.

Over the years, when The Eagle has published photographs of people making the hand sign, we’ve received letters from readers expressing dismay.

“I would think that before going to press, editors would do a little research on certain things, but especially on the possible obscenity of gestures,” a reader wrote in 2006. “I would also think that Wichita State University would discourage its students from showing or displaying such obscene and vulgar signs.”

During the Shockers’ NCAA tournament appearance in 2015, SportsBlog Nation explained WSU’s mascot and hand sign, adding, “This is an earnest congratulations to Wichita State fans for making a sex gesture so commonplace nobody bats an eye.”

So when Golden made the gesture one of his first acts as WSU’s president, I had to ask: Has the Shocker sign gone mainstream? Is it no longer whispered about in the stands or criticized in university offices?

Tami Cutler, spokeswoman for Wichita State Athletics, welcomed my question and quickly offered an explanation:

“Actually, there are two different hand gestures,” she said. “Ours is in the shape of a ‘W,’ and the crude hand gesture they’re referring to does not look like a ‘W.’”

The difference is simple, she said: When the thumb is extended rather than tucked in, the Shocker sign is totally innocent.

Cutler said she receives “a couple of emails a year” about the hand gesture — people complaining or asking if she’s aware of its shocking connotations.

“It’s unfortunate that the crude hand gesture has the same name as us. I mean, we are the Shockers so . . . that is just an unfortunate coincidence.”

Once she explains the difference and spells out the pinkie-fingers-thumb “W” that stands for Wichita, “I’ve never had anybody come back at me and say, ‘No that’s not right,’” Cutler said. “So I’m hoping that we’re educating people about it.”

I’m glad I asked.

Suzanne Perez Tobias is The Eagle’s opinion editor. During her nearly 30 years at the newspaper, she has covered breaking news, education, local government and other topics. An avid reader, Suzanne also oversees The Eagle’s books coverage and coordinates the annual #ReadICT Challenge. She can be reached at 316-268-6567.