Do you speak fan?

This underused accessory was once a valuable tool

If we'd had any sort of summer, fans might have made a comeback. I keep waiting for them to. They make so much sense on hot buses and trains, although I still remember a talk that a teacher gave us in primary school where she broke the painful news that fanning yourself made you hotter than if you just sat still. I do hope teachers check their facts before coming out with such theories, because they really stick in children's heads. I still can't fan myself without feeling that I am somehow going against nature. Mind, I was fully 16 before I dared eat a trifle sponge without also drinking a glass of water. (My mother had once told me something like: "Trifle sponges will make your mouth dry if you eat them without drinking something, too." But she was probably a bit more dramatic than that, being Neapolitan, and somehow I read it as: "If you eat a trifle sponge without a glass of water, you'll die" - and I never dared go against it.)

Anyway, besides their being used to combat heat, I've always wanted fans to come back into fashion because fans can talk. We think that people texting today, with their silly abbreviated wds, is new and exciting, but communicating in secret code is really nothing new at all. Because, once upon a time, when girls and boys weren't allowed to talk to one another very much, fans spoke for them, most usually on matters of love. The Original Fanology or Ladies' Conversation Fan was published in London in 1797, and told you how to "speak fan". The Spanish were there before the English, however, having a fan language that consisted of 55 meanings. When it was translated into English, it was reduced to a mere 33 words.

In an attempt to bring back the wonderful language of the fan, I offer here are a few movements and their meanings. Pressing a half-open fan to your lips means: "Kiss me." If you want someone to follow you, you need to carry the fan in your right hand in front of your face. Carrying it in your left hand in front of your face means: "I'd like to get to know you." Resting the fan on your right cheek gives the answer "yes"; on your left means "no". You can see how important it is to know the difference between your left and right if you want to converse using a fan.

A closed fan held next to the heart means: "I love you." Want to arrange to see someone? Touch your right eye with your closed fan, and the other person will then open the corresponding number of "sticks" on the fan. Good eyesight is pretty important here. How to arrange where to meet is not discussed. Fanning slowly conveys the fact that you're married, while fanning quickly means you're only engaged and can presumably be convinced otherwise. Dropping a fan means "Be my friend" - perhaps why clumsy people were always so popular.

Annalisa Barbieri was in fashion PR for five years before going to the Observer to be fashion assistant. She has worked for the Evening Standard and the Times and was one of the fashion editors on the Independent on Sunday for five years, where she wrote the Dear Annie column. She was fishing correspondent of the Independent from 1997-2004.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Spies and their lies