The language of the fan

Published 9:28 am Thursday, October 13, 2011

For those who know Cal Bryant, our editor here at the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald, you know that Cal has his own kind of humor.

There are times I like to think of it as “otherworldly” as in it only exists in Cal’s world.

An example of Cal’s humor was evident this weekend when he sent his “Yankee reporter” to a Civil War reenactment in Murfreesboro. The reenactment was the second event this year in the Murfreesboro Historical Association’s Civil War commemoration. The “War Between the States” began 150 years ago and became the bloodiest war in U.S. history.

It’s a dark mark in history, but in the end it is what it is—history, a time period we all can learn from and appreciate the changes that history has yielded.

As I’ve written here in the past, I’m a huge history buff. I love learning about anything from the past—the good, the bad, the ugly and especially the oddities, those little known facts that provoke the lift of a quizzical eyebrow or two.

On Saturday, I found that kind of historical fact on the steps of the Hertford Academy building where the “Southern Belles” dressed up in period clothing gave a talk on Victorian fashion and Language of the Fan.

The Victorian period in the United States, as well as in other countries (it originally began in England during Queen Victoria’s reign), is seen as a time when women’s rights were stifled. No vote, no property rights and no independence were just the tip of the iceberg. The slight show of an ankle back then was considered taboo.

So what were women to do? Apparently find their own way to communicate via their fan.

Hence the Language of the Fan, a series of movements done with a fan, each signaling a different meaning.

For example, the “Southern Belles” told us if you fanned quickly it meant you were single whereas a slow fanning motion meant you were married.

A few other movements:

A tap on a gentleman’s shoulder with a closed fan was a flirtatious action.

A fan touched to the lips indicated the lady would like a kiss.

A fan pressed to the heart showed passion.

A wide open fan waving furiously meant someone said something off color.

A closed fan laid across a lady’s face meant she was not talking.

A fan carried in the right hand meant you were willing.

Closing the fan meant, “I wish to speak to you.”

Drawing fan across ones eyes meant, “I’m sorry.”
Drawing a fan through your hands meant, “I hate you!”
Dropping a fan meant, “We will be friends.”
Letting a fan rest on the lady’s left cheek meant “no” while letting it rest on the right cheek intended, “yes.”
Twirling on the left hand indicated, “I love another.”

Amanda VanDerBroek is a Staff Writer for the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald. For comments and column suggestions email: or call (252) 332-7209.