The secret language of the Spanish fan

When summer comes, we all think of ways to beat the heat! And while air conditioning is an efficient way to combat the heat in houses and offices, Spanish women traditionally carry a hand-held fan to stay cool on the hottest days of the year. 

Did you know that moving a hand-held fan – or abanico as they are called in Spain – actually helps to increase airflow and therefore the evaporation of sweat on the skin? Plus you can use this tool to express your feelings…keep reading. 

What is the origin of the fan language? 

Abanicos are not unique to Spain. According to the news publication ABC, we can see traces of traditional fan use in Egypt, Babylonia Persia, Greece, and even Rome. It was the Portuguese who finally brought the foldable fan to Europe!  

The foldable hand-held fan as we know it today was invented in Japan, where it is said that a worker named Tamba was inspired by bats’ wings to create the design. The fan was used in Japanese Kabuki theatre, where we see the first movements that were meant to be signs.

During the Renaissance, in the 16th and 17th centuries, fans became widely popular in Europe. Queen Elizabeth the first of England famously told her maids-in-waiting that “a queen can accept only one gift: a fan.” Anything else was unacceptable.

The fan in Spain dates back to the 14th century, where it is cited in Pedro IV of Aragon’s chronicles, but it was not until the 17th century when artisan Eugenio Prost became the country’s most widely renowned fan producer. The fans were made with different colours and designs for weddings, funerals, home use and more. 

The language of the Spanish fan

Woman holding a hand-held fan with expressive face

Image source

Later on, ladies throughout the 19th and 20th centuries used fans to communicate in secret: to declare love, for example, as females were not permitted to speak their minds until well into the 1970s. Here are some of the more well-known gestures:

  • To fan quickly: intense romantic interest
  • To fan slowly: already married, or uninterested
  • To close slowly: this would mean a “yes”; opening and closing quickly meant the woman was either engaged or had a boyfriend, so the suitor had better be careful!
  • To close quickly: a clear “no”

From these, some of the “fan language” gets even more scandalous! For example, to open the fan halfway on one’s lips means, “you can kiss me,” while covering one’s eyes with the fan open means, “I love you.” Covering one’s face, on the other hand, means, “be careful, we’re being watched.” If your partner’s favourite love language is words of affirmation, it may be time for you to start using a hand-held fan, he or she will appreciate it in addition to your words! 

The seductive language of the beautiful and traditional Spanish fan is just one of many secret languages invented over time to communicate in the open without necessarily being overt. 

While the fan in Spain may be seen from the outside as an antiquated artefact with no contemporary use, a visit to the peninsula will prove otherwise. The fan is still a major part of the culture – both for practical reasons and as a subtle method of communication, especially among those in love! 

We love to explore the creative ways humans communicate, and the fan is just one of many that we will continue to share with you over the coming weeks. Stay cool this summer!