Where Did the High Five Come from Anyway?

We have baseball—or maybe basketball, or maybe the Vietnam War—to thank for it.

Did You Know the "High-Five" is Less Than Four-Decades Old? Here's How It Got Startedgpointstudio/ShutterStock

If you feel as though the high five has been around forever—a gesture with prehistoric origins similar to clinking glasses and shaking hands—you might be surprised to learn the celebratory act only dates back about 40 years. In fact, the phrase wasn’t added to the Oxford Dictionary until 1981.

But despite the high five’s relative newness, there’s no agreed-upon story of how it got started. Two likely theories attribute it to athletes; in particular, Glenn Burke of the Los Angeles Dodgers and Derek Smith of the Louisville Cardinals.

As the Burke theory goes, the first high five took place at Dodger stadium on October 2, 1977. In celebrating left-fielder Dusty Baker’s home run, outfielder Glenn Burke greeted the player by triumphantly throwing his hand toward the sky. “His hand was up in the air, and he was arching way back,” Baker said, according to ESPN. “So I reached up and hit his hand. It seemed like the thing to do.”

If that account is true, the Burke-Baker high five was the first. And even if it’s not, Burke still seems to take credit: “You think about the feeling you get when you give someone the high five,” he told a newspaper reporter, according to ESPN. “I had that feeling before everybody else.”

Another claim attributes the origin of the high five to the Louisville Cardinals’ 1978-79 basketball season. In this story, Wiley Brown, the team’s forward, went to give a low-five to teammate Derek Smith. The low-five had been a popular hand gesture among African Americans since the early 1920s. Allegedly, Smith looked at Wiley and said, “No. Up High.” Thus, the high five was born. (Find out why we propose with engagement rings.)

To make matters even more complicated, Conor Lastowka, the co-founder of National High Five Day, created another story to add to this bin of theories. This one, according to Mental Floss, is incorrect. In Lastowka’s version, Murray State basketball player Lamont Sleets invented the gesture in the late ’70s, after being inspired by his father’s Vietnam unit, the 1st Battalion, 5th Infantry, or, “The Fives.”

So who actually invented this celebratory hand gesture? No one knows—but here’s a virtual high five to whoever it was. You deserve it.

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