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The Humble High Five

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A high five moment.

The high five is an action of celebration, an expression of sheer joy and a moment of joyous unity shared between two participants. Simply put, it is the impact of open-palmed hands lifted aloft by two people wishing to mark a significant moment. It might sound easy; but by golly, there's a lot to learn!

How to High Five

A successful high five requires two participants, both of whom are familiar with, and adept at, 'fiving'1. Unlike the low five, there need not be a giver and receiver. The joys of the high five are equal for both participants, although one will need to initiate2 the procedure. Both can partake in the forward motion until their upright palms impact, and both take a hit of equal magnitude. Because of this, it is not difficult to see why high fives have gained prominence in the fiving spectrum.

The five should, where possible, be an even-sided affair. Thus, fives offered with the right hand should not be met with a left hand. Only injury, or an otherwise occupied hand, should prevent this from happening.

A good, full-hand connection is desired. This should, with the correct amount of force, effect a most pleasing 'thwack'. You will know when you have made a good five when people around you stop what they are doing to look at you and your fiving partner. Good aim is a necessity, this is usually developed through diligent practice, although some fiving theorists claim concentrating on the other person's elbow is the key to success.

Good Form Fiving

It is important to remember when participating in any kind of five that it is an expression of enjoyment, not an act of violence. The intention should never be to inflict pain. Doing this is an abuse of fiving and is very much frowned upon.

As proof of the phrase 'there's always one', there will be a rogue few fivers who think it humorous to present you with a five, and then withdraw it at the last moment. This is called 'psyching', and is widely frowned upon by fivers the world over. Someone who psyches is either a fiving novice, or a jerk, and quite possibly both.

Often psyching can be found in a typically playground form where one child offers a high five saying 'gimme five...' to another. Once completed, they transfer their low five to a side five3 saying 'to the side...'. Once this is completed, they offer an inverted low five4 saying 'up above...'. After this has been completed, they offer a low five saying 'down below...' but before the other child can make contact they pull away saying 'you're too slow!'. This clearly is cruel and should not be encouraged.

Never leave a brother hanging. Nothing in the world feels so bad as taking a moment to congratulate a friend, colleague, team-mate or family member only to be rejected and ignored5. It is lonely, and the desperate may turn to self-fiving. If there is a five going, seize the moment and take that five.

Fiving to congratulate is traditional. It's the old school cause for fiving. Sadly, we live in a world where some people don't partake. Other times no-one may have noticed your achievement. You may find yourself feeling you've deserved a five, but no-one offers one. In these or any other circumstances you should never offer a self-congratulatory five. It is big-headed, pompous and just wrong. Do not do it.

Dangerous Five

The world was reminded of the perils of fiving by golf legend Tiger Woods in 2005 when, after chipping to hole at the 16th during the US Masters at Augusta, he and his caddy had a remarkable and embarrassing non-contact. Clearly this was Tiger warning us all of the dangers that face the everyday fiver.

Both Atlanta Braves outfielder Terry Harper, and American Football quarterback for Penn State John Shaffer, have injured their shoulders after over-excitedly high fiving team-mates, further illustrating that the ideal gesture is one of precision and not power.

Variations on a Theme

Fiving can be adapted, and elaborated upon, as fits the situation. Many fivers will take a high five while walking or running past each other. A jumping five can be dangerous as there's a lot of momentum flying about, but is certainly enjoyable if pulled off correctly.

The 'flipside' or 'windmill' five is another important variation. Popularised by 80s film Top Gun it involves a standard high five where both participants follow through so that their hands meet again on the back swing, for a reverse five. This is generally regarded as a derivative of the 'ass pat' five, where a conventional high five is followed by a full swing to pat the other participant's bottom. This is a five which congratulates, but also affirms authority, and is usually carried out by sports coaches on one of their players. It is not intended to be reciprocated.

A high ten is the doubling up of high fives, so that both participants slap both of the other participant's hands6. A correct arm angle is required otherwise this five can bring your face uneasily close to that of your fellow fiver. This is not a good five to partake in while walking in opposite directions.

As a Form of Expression

As a communicative expression, a high five can mean many things: 'good game on Saturday', 'well done on your new job', 'I'm on your side', 'congratulations, it's a girl' or 'GOOOOAAAALLLLL!!!!!!'. It can be a greeting, a means of celebration or an act to confirm solidarity. As such, the best fives are the ones where verbal communications are not required; however, there are exceptions to the rule.

Sometimes, especially if among uninitiated company, you may offer a five and no one goes to partake of it. In this case, the words 'up there!' should be sufficient to draw attention to the five you are offering.

It's fun to name your fives. This is well-illustrated in the character, The Todd, in the television series Scrubs. If you're celebrating something with a five why not name your five after that something eg, 'good goal five!'.

The History

The history of the high five is frequently disputed by scholars, historians and inebriated men in bars. As with many expressions of popular culture, its origins are obscured, and a fairytale alternative is widely believed.


It is believed that fiving originated in African-American urban communities. In its original guise, the initiator (or receiver) of the five would present an upturned palm to someone he was greeting and say 'gimme five'7 with the 'five', of course, being a reference to the five fingers on a hand. The other participant then becomes the giver and slaps his palm down against that of the receiver.

This original variant is often referred to as the 'low five', the first record of which can be seen in the 1927 film The Jazz Singer8 The late Soul legend James Brown released the song 'Gimme Some Skin' in 1977 on Polydor records. It reached number 20 in the US R&B9 charts.

The First High Five?

Although the term 'high five' is thought to have come into existence in the 1970s or 80s, evidence can be found that fiving of the high variety was being enjoyed as early as the 1950s. In the Episode 'The Eating Contest' of The Phil Silvers Show10 Sergeant Bilko, a character played by Silvers, slaps the upheld hand of another character, Private Doberman.

The Hollywood Version

As with many things American, there is a fairy tale story behind the origins of the five, which is heart-rending, patriotic and almost certainly wrong.

Former Murray State University basketball player Lamont Sleets Jr claimed that in the 60s, his father and his regiment used to high five to acknowledge each other in Vietnam. The 1st Battalion, 5th Regiment was nicknamed 'The Five' and used to greet each other with a hand slap.

After the war, Sleets Sr's veteran friends would come to visit. While Sleets didn't know the names of all his father's friends, he could recognise them on sight by their hand slapping. Instead of remembering their names, knowing they were one of his dad's regiment Sleets used to greet them with a 'Hi, five!' as if it were their name, and accompany this with the appropriate hand slap.

Sleets claims to have popularised this during his college basketball-playing days in the late 1970s. He was a star player of the team, and his congratulatory gesture is thought to have caught on among squad members.

Baseball's First Five

In the last game of the 1977 baseball season for the LA Dodgers, young outfielder Glen Burke ran out onto the field to congratulate team-mate and veteran Johnnie 'Dusty' Baker as he completed a home run11. As Baker approached the plate, Burke raised his hand, and upon crossing the plate Baker slapped his palm against Burke's.

This is often claimed to be the first recorded high five, even though pesky evidence would suggest otherwise. Some mistakenly regard Burke, as the 'Father of the High Five'12, which is all the more heart-rending when you consider that despite the adversity of discrimination Burke was the first Major League Baseball player to be openly gay.

This is, however, the first recorded instance of high fiving in professional baseball. The second came moments later when Burke registered his first Major league home run and Baker reciprocated the celebration as Burke crossed the plate.

Giving it a Name

Even with some momentous fiving going on, the new phase did not yet have a name. Then came along college basketball star Derek Smith of the University of Louisville. He claims to have coined the term 'high five' during the 1981 college basketball season. It first appeared in print in the New York Times, 17 September, 1981 When Smith is quoted as saying:

The entire St Louis bench rose and smothered the player who had scored with high fives and head slaps usually reserved for someone who had homered.

This does not appear to have been a particularly great feat of achievement when you consider that people where saying 'gimme five' to the original brand of fiving some 50 plus years before, and this version was almost identical, only higher. Even so, Derek Smith is another sports star to have been dubbed the 'Father of the High Five'.

The Golden Era of Fiving

The 1980s are often regarded as the time when high fiving meant you were hip and down with the kids. The fad13 was new, and it represented achievement and acting on impulse. During this period, fiving was in every playground, sports pitch and youth club across the country, all over film and television, with the film Top Gun popularising its unique variant on the five theme.

The Naughties

After the 1980s peak, the 1990s were a grim time for fiving. As with all fashions and trends, what was once the ultimate in cool will eventually become totally uncool. The high five disappeared into the realms of cliché, possibly never to be seen again. Just about the only place one could see a high five, even in captivity, was on television's Fresh Prince of Bel Air14.

But roll on the new Millennium: high fiving, your time has come again.

The children of the 1980s are now the trend-setters of today and high fiving has made a return. This altogether more passé attitude to fiving may be ironic and post-modern; but in essence, it is an expression of joy no less relevant than that moment when Burke stepped up to congratulate Baker. Fiving is back, and it's time to get down with the kids.


The high five has become the major method of celebration in American sports. Particularly in basketball, where scoring is so frequent that fiving happens almost routinely, and most notably in baseball as players approach the plate after hitting a home run. Often upon particularly significant or momentous occasions within a game or season, whole teams of baseball players will line up along the run-up to the plate and extend their arms toward the player making the home run to high five en route.

However, high fiving is not restricted to our friends across the pond15. Fiving has become a regular celebration between professional footballers16 after a team mate has scored a goal, particularly in its doubled-up variant, the high ten. Also in doubles tennis many pairings can now be seen to present a form of fiving between each and every point, regardless of whether they win it or not.

National High Five Day

This is a national holiday celebrated in America on the third Thursday of each April. Its origins lie in the University of Virginia in 2001, but it has quickly become a day to enjoy fiving across the globe. While Britain has no national day of its own dedicated to fiving, many Brits celebrate on this day with Americans, unofficially.

1Participating in any of the varieties of fives.2Unless you are both some sort of high fiving gods who have a sixth sense for fiving.3By holding their hand with the fingers pointing forwards and their palm facing across their chest.4 Not, interestingly enough a high five, but a hand held high with the palm facing downwards to be slapped from below.5OK, so maybe the death of a loved one comes close, but it's still a pretty tragic place to be.6In these circumstances the even-sided approach is abandoned to avoid perilous arm crossing; instead, each participant should impact their right hand with the other's left, and their left hand with the other's right.7Or alternatively 'gimme some skin'.8The first ever 'talkie' film. In it, star Al Jolson fives another character upon getting an audition for a Broadway show.9Rhythm and Blues.10First aired on television November the 15th, 1955.11Where the player hits the ball out of the field and runs around the whole diamond.12As it was he who initiated this momentous five.13As the grown-ups generally regarded it.14A programme that, while set in the 90s, never really moved on from 1986.15The Atlantic ocean.16Proper association football, not the American variety.

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