‘high five’: origin and cultural background



Of American-English origin, the noun high five, also high-five, denotes a gesture of celebration or greeting in which two people slap each other’s palms with their arms raised.

According to the earliest instances that I have found, high five dates from 1980 and originated in basketball.

The earliest occurrence that I have found is from the account of a basketball game between Owensboro High School and Apollo High School (both of Owensboro, Kentucky)—account written by Rich Suwanski and published in the Messenger-Inquirer (Owensboro, Kentucky) of Wednesday 19th March 1980:

When the horn sounded, the victory secured, Higgs sought out his compadre, Rod Drake, and the two exchanged hand slaps above the head, or “high fives” as they are known. Their teammates, scattered about the court, went through similar rituals.

The second-earliest occurrence that I have found is from the caption to the following photograph by Michael E. Keating, illustrating the account of a basketball game between Louisville (Kentucky) and Iowa City (Iowa)—account written by Cindy Morris and published in The Cincinnati Enquirer (Cincinnati, Ohio) of Sunday 23rd March 1980:

'high five' - The Cincinnati Enquirer (Cincinnati, Ohio) - 23 March 1980

KEEPING WARY eyes on last-second court action, Louisville’s Darrell Griffith (right) and Wiley Brown exchange the “high five” along the bench.

The noun also occurs in the account of the victory of the Old Dominion Lady Monarchs (Old Dominion University, Norfolk, Virginia) over the Tennessee Lady Volunteers (University of Tennessee, Knoxville, Tennessee) in the AIAW national basketball championship—account written by Mick McCabe and published in the Detroit Free Press (Detroit, Michigan) of Monday 24th March 1980:

Angela Cotman hit a jumper and reserve Chris Critelli added two more hoops and all that was left for the Lady Monarchs to do was practice their high-fives as they had their third win of the year over Tennessee in the bag.

In an article about the victory of Louisville (Kentucky) over UCLA (University of California, Los Angeles) in the NCAA basketball tournament, Lesley Visser remarked that the gesture denoted by the noun high five appeared in 1980—article published in The Boston Globe (Boston, Massachusetts) of Tuesday 25th March 1980:

The Louisville freshman who started, Rodney McCray, and who finished with 11 rebounds and 7 points, took his championship watch and turned to hug a 6-foot-8 man who looked remarkably like him. It was Scooter McCray, the 220-pound sophomore center whom Rodney replaced because of injury early in the year.
Rodney, who clogged the middle and forced Kiki Vandeweghe to suffer the effects, clapped his brother the high five, this year’s handslapping motion.

In NCAAs: We hate to see you go, published in The Minneapolis Star (Minneapolis, Minnesota) of Tuesday 25th March 1980, Paul Levy, too, wrote that the gesture denoted by the noun high five appeared in 1980:

It was a season of change. The NCAA tournament was expanded to 48 teams […].
There were other changes:
● There was a new handshake—the high five.

In the Chicago Tribune (Chicago, Illinois) of Monday 7th April 1980, Dan Israel described the congratulatory rituals specific to several sports:

Proof that in all of sport there is no more thankless or miserable job than being a hockey goaltender is, perhaps, the way one is congratulated after victory.
In baseball, teammates shake the pitcher’s hand after the final out.
In football, players carry the coach off the field on their shoulders.
In basketball, there is a confusing and ever-changing array of curious congratulatory rituals, including the “high-five” that has been in vogue this season.
In hockey, they slap the goalie on the pads or on the bottom with sticks.

The noun high five came to be used in connection with other sports—such as baseball, as exemplified by the following photograph and caption from the Fort Lauderdale News (Fort Lauderdale, Florida) of Wednesday 30th April 1980:

'high five' - Fort Lauderdale News (Fort Lauderdale, Florida) - 30 April 1980

The high five
Boston’s Tony Perez accepts congratulations from Jim Rice after Perez unloaded a 2-run home run in the sixth inning of the Red Sox’ 11-1 rout of Chicago. It was Perez’ second home run.




The verb high-five means to celebrate with, or greet, with a high five.

The earliest occurrence of this verb that I have found is from The Leaf-Chronicle (Clarksville, Tennessee) of Thursday 1st May 1980, in which Tim Ghianni wrote the following about Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who played in the National Basketball Association for the Los Angeles Lakers:

Kareem was often painted as a big silent robot by writers. He never seemed to smile, he just battered the opposition and let fly with his sky hook with machine-like precision.
If you have watched the NBA games at all this year, you have doubtless noticed a difference in the man. The Lakers—and Kareem is THE Laker—have turned into a high-fiving, backside-slapping, bear-hugging bunch of kids.

In the Los Angeles Times (Los Angeles, California) of Sunday 8th June 1980, Mike Littwin mentioned the verb high-five in relation to baseball:

Every baseball fan should know:
—The derivation and social implications of “high-fiving.”

In The Tennessean (Nashville, Tennessee) of Sunday 2nd November 1980, David Climer used the verb in the account of a football game between TSU (Tennessee State University, Nashville, Tennessee) and Southern University (Baton Rouge, Louisiana):

Adams and friends hadn’t had time to finish back-slapping and high-fiving on the sidelines before free safety Bryan Howard picked off a Norman Gibbs pass at the TSU 44.




On Monday 13th October 1980, The Clarion-Ledger (Jackson, Mississippi) reported that Derek Smith, of the above-mentioned basketball team of Louisville (Kentucky), claimed to have invented the high five:

The ‘high five’
Ever wonder how the various forms of hand-slapping by athletes originated? Every year there seems to be a new slap or clasp to celebrate a home run or slam dunk.
The latest expression of jubilation is the “high five,” in which athletes who have done something extraordinary slap hands with arms extended over their heads. It turns out that the “high five” originated with the University of Louisville basketball team, last year’s NCAA champion.
Derek Smith, Louisville’s leading rebounder, claims to be the originator of the “high five.” He says it’s the finishing touch to such expressions as the handshake, hugging, patting the fanny or the “gimme five” slap.
Smith said that he and teammates Wiley Brown and Daryl Cleveland decided at preseason drills last year to be a little different. He said they were able to popularize the “high five” on the numerous TV appearances that Louisville made.
The “high five” is already standard fare in most athletic events, on playgrounds and even in sports departments, but it’s already out of date. According to Smith, he and his teammates are working on another move.
“We want to come up with an extra twist,” said Smith. “Maybe something behind the back. We’re going to make others work harder to copy off our next one.”

However, Bob Talbert wrote this in the Detroit Free Press (Detroit, Michigan) of Tuesday 14th October 1980:

Since the “high five” congratulatory slap is the hottest thing going at the moment, best we straighten out its origins, which didn’t start with the NCAA Louisville championship basketball team’s Derek Smith last year.
Many Michigan State loyalists and Spartan alums have let me know in a quick hurry that this “high five” slap originated in this country with MSU’s dynamic duo — Magic Johnson and Special K Kelser — two years ago in the NCAA championships.
Fritz Benson, a Michigan legislative consultant in Lansing, reports he firs witnessed the over-the-head-fives at the 1976 Olympic Games in Montreal. Notes Benson, “We saw a number of events and the Japanese women’s volleyball team all gave ‘high fives.’ It was occasionally used by the athletes from European countries as well.”
Benson suggests that players like Magic brought it back from Europe with them following their playing over there. Thank you for the correction. We like to keep our cultural history in order around here.

And the following letter was published in The Clarion-Ledger (Jackson, Mississippi) of Monday 3rd November 1980:

Reader first noticed ‘high five’ in Mexico
To The Sports Editor:
Today’s (Oct. 13) Clarion-Ledger reported that a Louisville basketball player originated the “high five” handslap. The Louisville basketball team may have popularized the “high five” last year, but I first became aware of it in 1977 while playing fast-pitch softball in several Mexican cities along the south Texas border.
                                                                                                                           Don Delnicki

Paul Logan, Sports Editor, published this very interesting article in the Albuquerque Journal (Albuquerque, New Mexico) of Sunday 23rd November 1980:

What’s Shakin’? How ’Bout a High Five or a ‘Pound’

Has this ever happened to you:
Someone’s just been introduced to you and it’s time for the ancient touching ritual — the handshake. The predicament — which one to use?
There’s the old-fashioned straight shake, but it’s not as much fun as the newer varieties. Some people think the more exotic shakes have more meaning; others consider using anything but the standard shake silly.
I have to admit playing the handshake guessing game a few times. But after a few interviews with the Lobo basketball team and their coaches, I’m not alone.
“When I formally meet people, I just shake their hand like that (holding his right hand straight out),” says Kenny Page. New Mexico’s high-scoring forward likes to play it safe off the court.
Dave Edmonds, one of Coach Gary Colson’s assistants, agrees.
“Straight out,” says Edmonds, the first black basketball assistant UNM’s had in years. “It’s up to them (recruits) how they want to grab it. I roll with the shake.”
Edmonds says the special shakes developed in the turbulent 1960s. Malcolm X, the Black Panthers, the Black Muslims, the Olympic boycott, riots in the cities came about in a search for black awareness. Catch phrases like “black power” and “black is beautiful” were used.
“That’s when blacks started their own handshakes,” says Edmonds. “It was just another means of helping with blacks’ identity crisis.”
When Colson was coaching at Pepperdine University in the 1970s, he was advised to use the soul or brother shake by a black coaching friend of his. The friend even showed him how to do it effectively. “He said to reach out for a warm handshake and let the person take it from there,” recalls Gary.
“It (shaking) got to be a real serious thing in L.A., especially recruiting (in the 1970s). If you shook hands in the conventional way with a black or even a white player, it put sort of a little strain immediately in the relationship, especially on the first encounter.”
Colson says he really doesn’t think about it that much anymore, but admits, “If he’s black, I’ll probably cock it; if he’s white, I might go straight.
“The ‘give me some skin’ — I like it,” says Colson. “I’ve noticed when there are several players already on the court for introductions, the player coming out tends to do an up-and-down thing — high five and giving skin — and sometimes misses a teammate in the process.”
Phil Smith, the Lobos’ talented point guard, says he’s seen teammates embarrass themselves on the court when one player tries one shake while the other does another. “It happens a lot of times to guys. Sometimes guys do the high five and some do this (slap five), and sometimes you miss. I’ve done that.”
The important thing, according to the Lobos, is showing your teammate you appreciate his efforts. If the shake backfires, no problem.
Jerome Henderson, one of the quickest 6-foot-10 centers in collegiate basketball, uses a shake as his mouthpiece. “When you get a good pass from someone, sometimes people don’t like to talk a whole lot, like me, so they do it (slap hands) to show they appreciate the pass. Everyone ain’t like Magic (Johnson). ‘Good shot, baby,’” says Henderson, doing a squeaky imitation of the L.A. Lakers’ star guard.
The most popular shake around right now is the high five. Last season’s NCAA basketball champs, the Louisville Cardinals, claim they invented this greeting, slapping hands with arms straight up. Henderson doesn’t agree.
“When Michigan State took it (NCAA in 1979), Magic did it with (Greg) Kelser. That’s where it got the most pub. They made it popular, you know,” says Jerome.
But it was done several years before that, according to Page. “My high school team (Staten Island’s McKee High) was doing it then (mid-70s), but then we just sort of stopped doing it.
“I don’t do it too much now,” says Kenny. “But it’s the new thing that’s in.”
Smith thinks he has a reason for the evolution of the high five, “Guys probably got tired of smacking each other on the butt.”
All kidding aside, Phil says handshakes on a team like the Lobos, made up of black and white players, is important. When they leave the Pit, teammates break up into little groups and go their separate ways. But at practice or in games, the shake “is sort of like a brotherhood thing. It brings us all together.”
What’s next in the congratulations game? The Lobos couldn’t predict. But Edmonds, who does plenty of recruiting out East, has a new expression for Westerners to use before laying the glad hand on a friend:
“It’s called giving somebody a ‘pound.’ In New York, that’s what they say.”

Illustrations for What’s Shakin’? How ’Bout a High Five or a ‘Pound’
Albuquerque Journal (Albuquerque, New Mexico)
Sunday 23rd November 1980:

handshake 1 - Albuquerque Journal (Albuquerque, New Mexico) - 23 November 1980

Soul or Brother Shake…

handshake 2 - Albuquerque Journal (Albuquerque, New Mexico) - 23 November 1980

…Part 2 of the Shake…

handshake 3 - Albuquerque Journal (Albuquerque, New Mexico) - 23 November 1980

Or You Might Try a ‘Pound’

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.