Pop Culture dictionary

elbow bump

[ el-boh buhmp ]

What does elbow bump mean?

An elbow bump is an alternative to such gestures as a handshake or hug. It involves two people tapping their elbows together, and is especially done in greeting or parting to avoid getting or spreading a contagious disease.

In other words, an elbow bump is a fist bump, but with the elbows. The term—and act—of an elbow bump became prevalent during the early stages of the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic.

For health, safety, and medical emergencies or updates on the novel coronavirus pandemic, please visit the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) and WHO (World Health Organization).

Related words

contact tracing, infodemic, virtual school, ChAdOx1 nCoV-19, twindemic

Where does elbow bump come from?

To perform an elbow bump, two people tap (bump) their elbows together—hence the name.

As a practice, public health officials and medical experts may promote the elbow bump because many contagious diseases can easily spread from the hands, which come into contact with a lot of germs. That’s why regular and proper hand-washing is so vital during an outbreak.

Knowing what makes a disease contagious matters more than ever. Learn why in our article “Contagious” vs. “Infectious”: The Difference Can Be Important.

As a term, elbow bump is first documented in the early 1900s for injuries (bumps) involving the elbow. As a friendly gesture, elbow bump is recorded in the 1980s in reference to a way basketball players expressed camaraderie on the court. (Fist bump is first recorded only in the mid-1990s.)

In the context of disease, elbow bump spreads in the 2000s. In 2006, the World Health Organization (WHO) notably promoted using elbow bumps instead of handshakes to slow the spread of bird flu that had broken out at the time. In 2009, the use of elbow bump on social media increased dramatically after CNN medical reporter Dr. Sanjay Gupta strongly encouraged the “el-bump” (a sometime play on elbow bump) amid swine flu. Elbow bump saw a continued increase with subsequent outbreaks, including Ebola in 2014.

And both as a term and practice, elbow bump proliferated during the initial phase of the devastating 2020 COVID-19 pandemic. Major public figures adopted the gesture and an unofficial emoji was even designed for the move—both indicating just how much the pandemic changed our social behaviors. (The so-called “footshake,” where two people tap their toes together, was another handshake substitute that emerged under COVID-19.)

But, as cases of COVID-19 swelled around the world, scientists better understood how easily the virus can spread through the air. So, by March 2020, elbow-bumping gave way to social distancing, with public health officials advising a distance of six feet between people. WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus specifically warned people that even the elbow bump could be risky, and urged people to instead greet each other from several feet apart without touching at all.

Examples of elbow bump

Elbow bump replaces handshake during flu season. Just sayin.
@markjordan, October 25, 2009
Instead of handshakes or high-fives, U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams introduced the elbow bump at a news conference in Connecticut as a possible alternative to avoid the coronavirus.
Adrianna Rodriguez, USA Today, March 4, 2020

Who uses elbow bump?

As discussed above, elbow bump has seen spikes in use following disease outbreaks.

Elbow bump saw a particular surge in the early months of 2020 during the initial stages of the COVID-19 pandemic. The spread of the practice, which was a new behavior to many people, was sometimes met with wry observations.

Outside the context of epidemics, uses of elbow bump as a ritualistic greeting or show of solidarity are rare.

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This is not meant to be a formal definition of elbow bump like most terms we define on Dictionary.com, but is rather an informal word summary that hopefully touches upon the key aspects of the meaning and usage of elbow bump that will help our users expand their word mastery.