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Darwin Correspondence Project

From William Robson Scott to E. B. Tylor   28 June 1870

St Leonards, Exeter

June 28th | 1870

My dear Sir,

The question you ask is a difficult one and my knowledge of the history of these 〈    〉 good & bad) is not sufficient to enable me to answer it in this manner but I will state what I think may have been the probable origin.1

In my chapter on signs I state that there are many signs that are abreviations of natural signs that are now so shortened as to assume all the characters of arbitrary signs and I believe the sign for bad to be one of these.2

A natural sign for disaproval—I will not say the one for I think there may be several—is by elevating the hands perpendicularly palms outward as if pushing an object from you & turning aside the face to avoid its sight. Now here the little fingers rise naturally, come nearest the individual disproved, & to lift the hand & present the little finger is only a curtailment of the fuller sign.— Now the sign good i.e the thumb elevated may have arisen from its being the digit opposite to the little finger & so taken to express the opposite direction 〈of〉 bad.— This however I would not like to 〈suppose〉 but I think the little finger being used for bad may very probably have arisen in the manner I state & the thumb taken as its opposite for good. Good in the North American signs is the hand held horizontally, back upward describing with the arm a horizontal curve outward.

This may probably spring from patting the head or back of a child; but I should rather think myself in the case of the thumb in D & D3 signs that it arose from its being the opposite of bad—bad being an abreviated form of the natural 〈sign I〉 have described, & I can think of no such 〈sign〉 as would similarly explain good.—

Such is the best account I can give you of these signs— It is a very busy time with me at present our children are just going away & what with this & the admission of new ones & settlement of a/cs, it keeps me at present very close at work—otherwise I would have looked more into the question for you.—4

Believe me | very truly yours | W. R. Scott

P.S. | I see I have neglected to say a word or two of the opposites alluded to by Mr Darwin— Opposites we had greatly recourse to in teaching the deaf and dumb, and they have a lively sense of these and will use signs accordingly— Light for instance 〈    〉 be expressed by opening the eyes wide, & the arms gradually out—while darkness would be expressed by closing the eyes & drawing the arms inwards.

Strength would be represented by doubling the 〈fists〉 contracting the muscles of the arms, with a general rigidity of the whole body & erect carriage

weakness—would be just the oppsite of this all the muscles relaxed & a depressed appearance &c.

others in the same way—but these 〈will〉 perhaps be said to be signs used [partly] [1 word illeg] being opposites, as they are all more or less expressive of the things they are to show   I dont know that I have hit the right point Mr Darwin wished, but if he 〈would〉 give me a few examples I will then try to answer them;— I shall shortly go to London for a week or so as my holidays are coming on, but any communications 〈sent here〉 would follow me.— Do you think there would be anything in my book of interest to Mr Darwin—I would have great pleasure in sending him one, if he would do me the honour 〈    〉

—Excuse this written amongst message many 〈    〉

CD annotations

Top of letter: ‘Antithes’ pencil


See letter to E. B. Tylor, 25 June 1870.
See W. R. Scott 1870, p. 12. CD cited this passage in Expression, p. 62. There is an annotated copy of W. R Scott 1870 in the Darwin Library–CUL (see Marginalia 1: 749).
Deaf and dumb.
Scott was principal of the West of England Institution for the Education of the Deaf and Dumb. A/cs: accounts.


Expression: The expression of the emotions in man and animals. By Charles Darwin. London: John Murray. 1872.

Marginalia: Charles Darwin’s marginalia. Edited by Mario A. Di Gregorio with the assistance of Nicholas W. Gill. Vol. 1. New York and London: Garland Publishing. 1990.

Scott, William Robson. 1870. The deaf and dumb: their education and social position. 2d edition. London: Bell & Daldry.


Speculates on the origin of gestures representing good and bad or approval and disapproval;

discusses signs used in teaching the deaf and dumb, particularly the use of opposites [see 7244].

Letter details

Letter no.
William Robson Scott
Edward Burnett Tylor
Sent from
St Leonards, Devon
Source of text
DAR 177: 124
Physical description
4pp damaged †(by CD)

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 7248,” accessed on 8 August 2020,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 18