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  • Paul Anthony Jones


(n.) a gesture or movement of the hands used in conversation when a word is forgotten or the speaker loses his train of thought

An old tweet popped back up on HH recently after an unexpected family connection was discovered on Twitter.

Last year, in a thread of facts from the HH book Why Is This A Question?, we talked about Butterworths—that is, those flailingly desperate hand gestures you make when you forget a word or lose your train of thought.

Also known as speech-fail gestures, Butterworths take their name from University College London linguistics professor Brian Butterworth, who revolutionized our understanding of gesture analysis when he explored the mechanism behind these hand movements in the mid 1980s. And this week, his daughter rather brilliantly discovered that his (and indeed, her) name have since become immortalized in the linguistic dictionary.

It’s worth pointing out that it wasn’t Professor Butterworth himself who used his own name in this way, but rather fellow psycholinguist David McNeill who chose to honour his colleague. In his 1992 book on gesture analysis, Hand and Mind, McNeill explained:

This is the “Butterworth,” corresponding to the “speech failure” category [of gesture] ... I have named this category after Brian Butterworth, a scholar in Britain who has argued that many gestures arise in response to speech failures.

One question remains, of course: why do we move our hands like this when we lose our train of thought?

Well, as those of you who have read Why Is This A Question? will know (and this subject is discussed much more fully in the book that we can manage here) the science behind gesturing is complex, and indeed Butterworths are just one of a number of different types of conversational hand gesture that have so far been identified—each of which is deployed in speech for different reasons. In simple terms, though, Butterworthing appears to achieve three things.

On the one hand (no pun intended), it acts as a visual cue. When we forget a word, we naturally stop talking while our brain scrambles to get itself back on track. By continuing to gesture while we think, however, we can ensure that we visually hold the conversational floor and thereby show to those around us that we still have more to say and will continue to talk once the correct word is recalled.

Secondly, experimentation is increasingly showing that gestures act not only as visual cues, but on a far deeper level may be involved in actual the mental process by which we access the words in our vocabulary. You’re moving your hands when you speak, consequently, as a natural extension of how your brain stores and retrieves language.

And thirdly, let’s not forget that losing your train of thought or forgetting a word or a name is an enormously frustrating and even embarrassing situation. As a result, we become flustered and annoyed when it happens, and our body flushes with adrenaline as it struggles to maintain composure. This can serve to cloud our thinking even more, of course, and so it’s possible too that Butterworthing—that is, moving our hands and arms—might be a simple way of “burning off” some of this nervous energy so we can get ourselves back on track more quickly.

All told, there’s a lot more to gesturing than—quite literally—meets the eye.

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