The Vi Gang Sign

Back in May, I finally decided to sit down and write an article I had been thinking about for a long time: an article that would actually explain why vi/vim editing is really more productive than other editing models. Since I became a vi(m)er myself about 3 years ago, I had actually talked a few friends into giving it a try, and, oh surprise, a few of them really ended up using it permanently. There is something in an in-person presentation from someone you trust and respect that makes people less likely to turn on the hyper-sensitive bullshit-filter. If you read about a random person using vi/vim on the net, you just end up discarding it as “yet another nuthead” and moving on. I wanted to write an article that had some non-zero chance of jumping over that first hurdle.

Also, I felt that most write-ups available didn’t do a good job of presenting the actual, practical advantages of vi(m). As a tutorial, I felt that my graphical cheat sheet and tutorial from March ’06 had done the best job possible for a simplified tutorial and quick-reference: this page is now the biggest traffic driver to, and a very widely used resource – see this photo as a sample:

(Original Link). You can see it features someone’s desktop (Will Simpson’s actually, not that I know him really), and seeing the vi/vim cheat sheet in such a privileged position makes me really proud!

Also testament to the tutorial’s popularity is the fact that the cheat-sheet/tutorial page is heavily linked to around the web, and thanks to that it’s the 2nd to 4th result for “vi cheat sheet”, “vim cheat sheet” and its variations, also 3rd for “vim tutorial”, and on the first page for “vi tutorial” – these are quite high-traffic searches for a widespread yet difficult to master text editor like vi/vim.

Still, I wanted to write an illustrated, light-hearted and entertaining article to tell the story about vi/vim editing. I felt this was missing. I wanted to make it an easy read and present it in a somewhat playful tone, rather than a dry technical article. The tone was important, and some illustrations would help in the visual department. A big-block-o-text is never the best way to attract and keep someone’s attention.

Somehow, I had recently stumbled into the following photo:

Paul Tuckfield flashes the vi gang sign on stage during his keynote, “Scaling MySQL at YouTube”.

This was a great find! I had never heard about it, but having a ‘vi gang sign’ was totally cool. What other editor has a gang sign? An ‘emacs’ gang sign would require, at the very least, two extra thumbs. Very appropriate.

I searched for other references to the vi gang sign on the web, and got to find a few. For example, the following: VI Gangstas. These pictures portray a single-handed version instead of Paul Tuckfield’s two-handed one. It really seemed much nicer than the two-handed one. A single-handed sign is easier and quicker to flash, and I simply liked it better than the two-handed version.

So with this information, I decided to use my limited but beloved drawing skills (beloved by me, of course), and drew up a graphic to head up the article and set up a playful tone for the whole thing. The title was also chosen somewhat to this purpose. You can see the result here: Why, oh WHY, do those #?@! nutheads use vi?, which if you’ve been following my blog won’t be news to you. I wrote it up, prepared screen captures of the presented cases, had it reviewed by some friends, and finally published it. I submitted it to reddit and other social news/links services; the article proved pretty popular with this audience, and well over 40k people came over in the next couple of days (and hopefully read it!).

But there was a surprise I hadn’t foreseen: soon after it appeared on the reddit front page, a few redditors over there pointed out that this was indeed very, very close, almost identical, to an obscene gesture with a sexual connotation called “The Shocker”. Here is a link to the mostly SFW wikipedia article describing it, but don’t click if you prefer not to get the detailed description of a seriously obscene hand gesture with a sexual connotation. I had been totally unaware of this, and I had been flashing it at the top of my now-pretty-popular article!

I was mildly anxious about it, but rationalized not changing it in the following way:

  1. The sign is not exactly the same, as the shocker has the index and middle finger together, while the vi gang sign has them in a ‘v’ shape (a little problem is that my version hadn’t emphasized that separation and was closer to the shocker than necessary).
  2. If someone doesn’t know about the shocker, there is no problem at all
  3. If someone does know about the obscene version, then whose fault is it really?

So I decided to forget it, leave it up, and not give it much importance. After all, it even added another playful hack to the article (although I certainly wouldn’t like to find myself explaining that part of the joke to my mom!).

A few months passed, and I had mostly forgotten about it. I had told the story of the sign to friends over beers just for fun, but that’s about it.

But last month, I had another surprise waiting regarding to the issue: I received the following email from rhockens (someone I didn’t know beforehand):


The first time I saw the vi gang sign was on your site at:

Doing a search for it, seems like I’m late to the party. Anyhow, a coworker who paints asked me if I’d like him to paint something for me, so, since it was kind of in his style anyhow, I asked for a rendition of the sign based on the one at your site.

Thought I’d share it with you:

Ugh! Someone had inadvertently gotten into obscene hand gestures through my drawing! I was seriously proud to have a real painter decide to do a rendition of my drawing as physical oil on canvas, but there was some not so nice news I had to communicate. I wrote to rhockens with the news, and this was the response I got:

Oh my. I read up on “the shocker.” This just gets sillier.

I’ll defer to the artist, David, regarding posting it, but I’m sure he’d be fine with that.

Finally I got in touch with David 23, the artist himself, as I wanted to thank him and ask him for permission to post about the story. This was his response:

Hello Jon,

You are welcome to post the picture on your blog.
If you want to link back to my blog it’s at

A friend of mine told me about the shocker after seeing my painting… I assure you it’s the vi gang sign and nothing else. I hadn’t even heard of the “shocker” until after the painting was finished.

Glad you like it.

– David 23

I’ve had a look at David’s blog and works through his personal site. I really like his work – here are links to David 23’s personal web site (cool domain name!), his art gallery, and the one out of his paintings that I like the most.

Now at least I have someone else exposed to the same misunderstanding and reaction as myself. Isn’t it good to share experiences like this?

And isn’t it fun where editor wars can take you?

27 Responses to “The Vi Gang Sign”

  1. Anonymous Says:

    All gang signs are real. Don’t be that guy.

  2. J Says:

    @anon: sorry, I don’t get what you mean!

  3. dude Says:

    Who doesn’t know what the shocker is?! Don’t you people have girlfriends? Vim totally turns the chicks on guys! No, really! 😛

  4. J Says:

    @dude: Us non-US guys don’t necessarily know about that kind of thing, at least myself, no matter if we have girlfriends or not. It seems many Americans didn’t know either, from the kind of feedback I got.

    Anyway, it’s almost never bad to widen the horizon of your knowledge.

  5. Bill Brown Says:

    The shocker is horizontal, while this is clearly vertical.

  6. J Says:

    @bill: Thanks for pointing that out – it does seem the shocker is never shown vertically. In any case, if I ever get to flash the sign on stage anywhere, I’ll stick to using the two-handed version like Tuckfield!

  7. duus Says:

    The shocker has at least two rhyming couplets that express the meaning of the hand sign. (the wikipedia link above will clarify, if you’re curious.) I think the way to

  8. duus Says:

    … sorry, didn’t mean to press return

    As I was saying, I think the way to solidify the vi gang sign is to come up with your own couplet. As a non-vi-user I can’t be much service, but it would help if it was of the following form:

    2 for the X
    1 for the Y, where X and Y rhyme

    or, perhaps even better,

    V for the X,
    I for the Y. Again, where X and Y rhyme.

    If you come up with a solid associated couplet, I think the difference between the vi gang sign and the shocker will be clear & percolate through the public consciousness.

  9. J Says:

    duus, indeed, there are actually a lot of rhyming couplets. See here for another fun story related to the shocker and a hundred of rhymes:

    Your idea is very cool. I’m not sure I’ll be able to come up with anything though, I’ll be grateful if anyone does!


  10. Wunar Says:

    How about throwing the second hand to the mix, showing letter ‘M’? (Though, vi purists may not be terribly excited with that)

  11. J Says:

    I think of vim as just the modern Vi. When I talk about Vi, I usually mean Vim. Of course, not to diminish Bram’s and other contributors’ impressive work! Being called ‘The Modern Vi’ is the highest compliment for me.

  12. JGiles Says:

    Ever try Emacs?

  13. uhm... Says:

    The two-handed version isn’t too great either, the fingers spell out `qui` (on a qwerty layout anyways), a sure sign you want to get out of this editor 😛

  14. J Says:

    jgiles: I’ve tried to after having learned vi(m), but I just can’t get around to using difficult-to-articulate chord keybindings any more.

    uhm: At least nobody will understand it as an obscene gesture! Best solution for a PC bit of vi pride 🙂

  15. ViEmu blog » Blog Archive » A funny story about the Vi Gang Sign Says:

    […] […]

  16. accused of stooping low for laughs ~ numerodix blog Says:

    […] Jon of recalls how a benign hand gesture he helped spread was discovered to be very similar to an obscene hand gesture, well known in some circles. His rationale is: If someone does know about the obscene version, then whose fault is it really? […]

  17. mwb1100 Says:

    Bizzare – I had never heard of “the Shocker” until I read about here on of all places a VI oriented blog. Then just last night I see it used and mentioned on on of Comedy Central’s cartoons (Drawn Together).

  18. J Says:

    Funny how sometimes things seem to come repeated. I learned about Fabrice Bellard’s Tiny C Compiler this week, and just today I found a mention in an obscure web site.

  19. destino Says:

    The symbol must also mean something in catholicism. Here is a painting of Jesus flashing the VI sign:

  20. J Says:

    Destino, I’m not religious, but that image is certainly miraculous! Thanks for posting about this! — Jon

  21. Seth Says:

    Anybody notice the curious coincidence that “rhockens” seems related to “n shocker” ?

  22. Jon Says:

    Maybe this was all a prank on me? 🙂

  23. : Vim - Ressourcen im Netz Says:

    […] Vi gang sign Das geheime Erkennungszeichen der Vi/Vim-Anwender […]

  24. Sven Guckes Says:

    here i am together with Julius Plenz
    doing the Vim gang sign in Berlin:
    this was July 2005.. how time flies!

    –Sven [not enough hands for emacs]

  25. Jon Says:

    Sven, I tried to access the image you link to, but it says “forbidden”. I’m sure it’s cool though!

  26. The Solo Founder (Startup) Rap: MicroISV on a Shoestring Says:

    […] your collar down and your temper up, So won’t you single founders please stand up And put three fingers on your hand up? And be proud to be out of your mind and in control. And one more time, Loud as you can, How does […]

  27. The VI - Gang Sign :) Says:

    […] “I had never heard about it, but having a ‘vi gang sign’ was totally cool. What other edit… […]

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