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Knuckle their foreheads

Posted by Victoria S Dennis on July 03, 2005

In Reply to: Knuckle their foreheads posted by Noelani on July 02, 2005

: Hi everyone, please help. My friend and I had a discussion today about the fact that old time sailors used to Knuckle their foreheads rather than use the present day form of saluting. I know this is not a phrase but I just dont know where else to look and I feel certain that somebody out there will know the origin of this old custom and will hopefully be willing to share it. Thanks

You don't say whether you mean American or British sailors. In either case the naval and military salute both derive from the 17th- and 18th-century courtesy of doffing the hat. (Don't believe anybody who says it is a gesture showing that you have no weapon in your hand; that's a widespread belief but wholly untrue.) Gradually the gesture diminished to just touching the hat; sailors who weren't wearing a hat would touch their forehead to signify that they would have touched their hat if they had had one to touch. (But to this day British officers, both naval and military, do not salute when bareheaded, on the grounds that you can't doff what you aren't wearing.)

In the Napoleonic wars British soldiers still saluted differently depending on what headgear - e.g. grenadier cap, cocked hat, shako - they were wearing, on the grounds that if they were really doffing it, each of these styles would have required a slightly different action to remove. At that time the salute was performed with whichever hand was furthest from the person being saluted - a hangover from 17th-century hat-doffing. (The 17th-century hat was so big that if you doffed it with a flourish to someone with the nearest hand, at best the gesture would obscure your face and at worst you might smack them in the face with it.) Right up to 1916 the British Army - I don't know when the Royal Navy changed - saluted with the further hand. (VSD)

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