“You may kiss me.”

Ogi: The Japanese folding fan

No one was more likely to catch a chill than the flirt. Before the eighteenth century, “to flirt” meant to move with a sudden, brisk motion, similar to flitting or flicking. “Flirting a fan” described the coquette’s pastime, and later a new fan-related word, “flirtation,” was used to describe her aim, too—playing at love, without serious intentions. In ancient Japan, lovers gave each other ogi, pledging devotion as they did in Europe by exchanging gloves. In both the East and the West, however, lovers arranged their liaisons and conveyed intimate messages via fan signals. A spate of nineteenth-century handbooks decoded the various international languages. In Spain, for example, covering the left ear with an open fan meant “Do not betray our secret.” Snapping it open, then shut, in England translated as “You are cruel,” while holding a half-opened fan to the lips proclaimed, “You may kiss me.”

No doubt, it made for an extremely subtle conversation, but over the years women had become fluent in speaking fan. “The woman of breeding differs from others in her use of the fan,” declared the authoress Germaine de Staël (1766–1816). “Even the most charming and elegant woman, if she cannot manage her fan, appears ridiculous.”


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