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A Not-So-Secret History of the Secret Handshake

My brother and father were presidents of the same fraternity. And so, for the last 20 years, they’ve employed the Psi Upsilon greeting — a normal handshake but for the pinkies, which are discreetly hooked. Occasionally, dad would mix us up and errantly hook my pinky before eventually correcting himself. “Whoops, thought you were your brother,” he’d say, retreating to the normal, boring, not-your-older-brother’s handshake.

That, of course, fostered a couple of things: First and foremost, envy — no one likes to be excluded, especially among fathers and sons — but also an overall interest in the way people press the flesh in secretive ways to convey some sort of greater connection (or at the very least, a connection you’re not a part of).

Needless to say, it didn’t start with Psi Upsilon or my old man and brother.

1) By definition, secret handshakes involve placing fingers, thumbs and/or palms in a particular position to convey membership to a club — fraternal orders, fraternities, secret societies, athletic teams, friends, families, etc. They can also involve touching feet, elbows or even a friendly kiss.

2) Even the OG handshake, which began in Greece during the 5th century B.C, had a hidden message: Neither of us is carrying a weapon.

3) A thousand years later (give or take), craft masons who built Medieval cathedrals — better known as “freemasons” since they were unbound to feudal lords and could work throughout Europe — needed a way to prove their bona fides. So they developed a system of secret handshakes which, much like union cards today, authorized tradesmen to work at job sites. Different handshakes signified varying levels of accomplishment and seniority, however subtly. A handshake between a master from an apprentice, for example, included a series of knuckle compressions.

4) Similarly, the Pass Grip of a Master Mason, also called “The Lion’s Paw,” is made by pressing the top of the thumb hard on a fellow Manson’s second knuckle. Seen as a sign of respect for the patriarch of his family, George W. Bush slipped his dad the Lion’s Paw when greeting him on 9/11.

5) Bush Sr.’s boss — Ronald Reagan — also knew a thing or two about Masonic handshakes as he exchanged one with Mikhail Gorbachev during his presidency.

6) Generally speaking, Freemasons abound in American politics. To wit, 13 signers of the Constitution and 14 presidents (Washington, Monroe, Jackson, Polk, Buchanan, Johnson, Garfield, McKinley, both Roosevelts, Taft, Harding, Truman and Ford) were allegedly Freemasons.

7) A digital “secret handshake” is a form of cryptography that enables the SSL or TLS client and server to establish secret keys with which to communicate. (Not to be confused with The Secret Handshake, an electronica/soul music project by Luis Dubuc in which he plays all the instruments — guitar, synthesizer, piano and drums — himself.)

8) Hundreds of Masonic conspiracy theories have circulated since the 18th century. For instance: The Beatles were freemasons and actually controlled by a secret music masonic industry. The cited evidence: Secret handshakes John Lennon was photographed making.

9) Lately, however, it’s Jay-Z and Kanye West who are suspected of being members of a Hip Hop Illuminati.

10) For their part, the Freemasons deny the practice. “There is no Masonic handshake,” Nigel Brown, grand secretary of the Freemason’s United Grand Lodge of England, told a reporter from the Telegraph in 2012. “I’m afraid my handshake is a perfectly normal one. Sorry to disappoint you.”

11) Although not technically a handshake, some consider the Biblical kiss of Judas, by which he betrayed Jesus, to be a form of secret handshake. (Not to be confused with the Kevin Sorbo/Amy Grant vehicle, The Secret Handshake, “a rollicking family comedy of men and boys learning what it takes to be a man though adventure, laughter and maybe even shedding a tear or two.”)

12) These days, secret handshakes are more commonly used in informal settings. Case in point: BuzzFeed suggests “11 Secret Handshakes You and Your Bestie Should Learn.”

13) Another modern interpretation: “[A secret handshake is] when your partner will not give it up so you wait for them to fall asleep and then use their hand to crank off.”

14) Dapping, the cooler cousin of the secret handshake, involves a series of knocking fists together as a sign of respect. According to UrbanDictionary, “The Dap includes simple to very intricate series of rhythmic hand slaps, clasps, hand and arm gestures exchanged between two persons as a sign of personal greeting, respect and group solidarity. Has origin in greetings developed and practiced by members of Black Power organizations founded in southern California in the early 1970s and then became commonplace and outlawed practice among African-American draftees and soldiers stateside and abroad during the latter years of the Vietnam War.”

15) Nowhere is the secret handshake more ubiquitous than on TV. Some prime examples: Boy Meets World, Scrubs, Community, The Simpsons and Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.

16) Well, maybe sports. Again, some prime examples: Prince Fielder and Miguel Cabrera; LeBron James and Mario Chalmers; Robinson Cano and the Sportscenter staff; Jeremy Lin and Landry Fields; Melvin Ingram and Roger Goodell; hockey players Matt Duchene and Paul Statsny; Rod Barajas and Dee Gordon; and the entire Clemson football team.

17) In the NBA’s ongoing ongoing effort to promote active parenting, it’s urged dads to learn secret handshakes with their kids. “Nobody compares to NBA players when it comes to crafting elaborate handshakes and elaborate handshakes absolutely delight kids,” begins The NBA Guide to Creating the Perfect Handshake. “They’re nuts for them. It’s like getting a cool nickname and dancing all that same time. But crafting a personal handshake for you and your kid is no easy task so you might want to take some pointers before you get started.”

18) Thomas Bussey, a third-grade teacher at Centennial Academy in Atlanta, has secret handshakes with each of his 30 students. He says it makes the classroom feel more family-oriented. “I greet them as they enter the classroom and spark a little conversation,” Bussey told Inside Edition in 2016. “I want them to know that I care about their weekend and who they are outside of school.”

19) But back to the frat bros (guys like my dad and brother), for whom secret handshakes — secret anything — is a big fucking deal. “If I’m at spring break and notice some guy with our frat symbols on his shirt,” writes Beachboy6294 in the forums, “I’ll ask him a question from the Big Book and if he responds with the right answer, followed by the handshake. Then you know their not lying.” (All kinds of sic necessary.)

20) “Bingo,” replies Ponyfitness. “When I was home on break I made a beer run with a friend from high school. He and the party store owner were members of the same frat and did their magic handshake while I was trying to pay for the beer. He looked at me and said, ‘You probably shouldn’t have seen that.’”