From Academic Kids

A salute is a gesture or other action used to indicate respect. Salutes are primarily associated with military forces, but other organizations and even general populations use salutes.


Civilian Salutes

While such gestures as tipping one's hat as one passed others on the street could be considered salutes, the most common civilian salute is rendered to the flag. In the United States, civilians salute the flag by placing their right hands over their hearts. (Men remove any headgear and hold it over their hearts, if applicable.) In Latin America, especially in Mexico, a salute similar to the United States military's salute (see below) is used, but the hand is placed across the left chest with the palm facing the ground. (For a demonstration, see the Richard Dreyfuss movie Moon Over Parador.). In some countries, such as the United Kingdom, civilians do not salute the flag, although some may stand to attention when the National Anthem is played, the flag raised or lowered, or the Last Post sounded.

Roman salute

The Roman salute is the right hand held flat, palm down and fingers closed, and raised at an angle of about 45 degrees. It was used by the Roman Republic, and by armies of the Middle East and South America at various times. It was also the historical civilian salute of the United States, from about 1787 to 1934, known since 1892 as the Bellamy salute.

When the Nazi party of Germany adopted the Roman salute from the Italian fascists, President of the United States Franklin Roosevelt instituted the hand over the heart as the salute to be rendered by civilians during the Pledge of Allegiance and the national anthem in the United States. This was done when Congress officially adopted the Flag Code on 22 June 1942.

Because of its associations with fascism, the Roman salute is now rarely used.

Clenched fist salute

The raised clenched fist was popularized by the Communist Party, and in some locations it maintains that association. In the United States, the raised fist was associated with the Black Power movement. However of late its antecedents have been forgotten and it has become a generic gesture of solidarity and determination.


Many different gestures are used throughout the world as simple greetings. In "Western" cultures, the handshake is very common, though it has numerous subtle variations of grip strength, amount of "pumping" involved, and use of the left hand.

In Japanese and Korean cultures, a simple bow from the waist (rei in Japanese, panbae in Korean) is used, with many regional variations seen. The Japanese keep the palms of their hands touching the fronts of the thighs, but Korean men leave their hands straight down at their sides, while Korean women usually place their hands in their lap while bowing. This gesture is not found in Chinese societies in daily life, and a slight bow is used only in paying respects to the dead.

The Arabic term salaam, literally "peace" from the spoken greeting that accompanies the gesture, refers to a low bow performed while placing the right palm on the forehead. Some cultures use hugs and kisses even between two men, but those gestures show an existing degree of intimacy and are not used between total strangers. All of these gestures are being supplemented or completely displaced by the handshake in areas with large amounts of business contact with the West.

These bows indicate respect and acknowledgment of social rank, but do not necessarily imply obeisance.


An obeisance is a gesture not only of respect but also of submission. Such gestures are rarer in cultures that do not have strong class structures; citizens of the United States, for example, often react with hostility to the idea of bowing to an authority figure. The distinction between a formally polite greeting and an obeisance is often hard to make; for example, proskynesis (Greek for "kissing towards") is described by the Greek researcher Herodotus of Halicarnassus, who lived in the 5th century BC in his Histories 1.134:

When the Persians meet one another in the roads, you can see whether those who meet are of equal rank. For instead of greeting by words, they kiss each other on the mouth; but if one of them is inferior to the other, they kiss one another on the cheeks, and if one is of much less noble rank than the other, he falls down before him and worships him.

After his conquest of Persia, Alexander the Great introduced Persian etiquette into his own court, including the practice of proskynesis. Visitors, depending on their ranks, would have to prostrate themselves, bow to, kneel in front of, or kiss the king. His Greek and Macedonian subjects objected to this practice, as they considered these rituals only suitable to the gods.

In countries with recognized social classes, bowing to nobility and royalty is customary. Standing bows of obeisance all involve bending forward from the waist with the eyes downcast, though variations in the placement of the arms and feet are seen. In western European cultures, women do not bow, they "curtsey" (a contraction of "courtesy" that became its own word), a movement in which one foot is moved back and the entire body lowered to a crouch while the head is bowed.

Missing image
Jackie Chan rises from a kneeling kowtow in the movie Shanghai Noon

More elaborate gestures of obeisance are used in formal conditions. The Chinese language term 叩頭 (literally "bump head", spelled ke4 tou3 in pinyin and "kowtow" in English) refers to the act of deep respect shown by bowing so low as to touch the head to the ground. The full kowtow begins kneeling and sitting back on the heels, with the hands on the thighs. The hands are then brought forward to the floor in front of the knees and the body inclined toward the horizontal. Whether or not the head is bowed as well reflects the degree of submission shown — in martial arts practices, for example, the neck is kept straight, but in religious ceremonies the forehead touches the ground. A slightly abbreviated version was developed for use outside and by armed guardsmen, who would flip their long sleeves down to cover their hands, drop to their left knees, place their right hands behind their backs and left palms on the floor in front of them while bowing their heads.

Many religious believers kneel in prayer, and some (Roman Catholics, Orthodox, and, rarely, Anglicans) genuflect, bending one knee to touch the ground, at various points during religious services. During Islamic prayer, a kneeling bow called sajdah is used, with forehead, nose, hands, knees, and toes all touching the ground.

Military Salutes

In military traditions of various times and places, there have been numerous methods of performing salutes, using hand gestures, cannon or rifle shots, hoisting of flags, removal of head gear or other means of showing respect or obeisance.

Hand Salutes

Missing image
A soldier of the Wojska Lądowe (Polish Land Forces) salutes using Polish two-fingers salute.

A common military hand salute consists of raising the right hand, held flat, to the right eyebrow. In the United States, the hand is horizontal, as if shading the eyes. This salute is based on the British naval-salute of the Royal Navy which is still in use. The British military-salute, used by the British Army, Royal Marines, Royal Air Force and armed services of many of the current and former members of the British Commonwealth, is similar apart from the hand being turned so the palm is visible to the person receiving it. The French Army salute is almost identical to the British Army's. Kosovo's KLA uses a salute similar to the British military-salute, except that the fingers are clenched into a fist and the knuckles pressed against the temple, a gesture originating with the communist movement. The customary salute in Poland is a variation of the British military-salute with only two fingers extended.

In the U.S. Navy and each of the British Armed Forces, hand salutes are only given when a 'cover' (hat) is worn, while the U.S. Army gives salutes both covered and uncovered.

Missing image
United States Navy Admirals Clark and Johnson salute each other during a change-of-command ceremony, Admiral Clark relieving Admiral Johnson as CNO.

When the presence of enemy snipers is suspected, military salutes are generally forbidden, since the enemy may use them to recognize officers as valuable targets.

The origin of this salute is unknown. One theory is that it came from Roman soldiers' shading their eyes from the intense light that was supposed to shine from the eyes of their superiors (see emission theory of light). Another theory is that it came from when men-at-arms wore armor--a friendly approach would include holding the reins of the horse with the left hand while raising the visor of the helmet with the right, so that one could be recognised. A third theory is that the salute, and the handshake, came from a way of showing that the right hand (the fighting hand) was not concealing a weapon. Another theory is that it evolved from the practice of men raising their hats in the presence of officers[1] ( The naval salute, with the palm downwards, is said to have originated because the palms of naval ratings, particularly deckhands, were often dirty through working with lines. Because it would be insulting to present a dirty palm to an officer, the palm was turned downwards.

The Roman salute is the oldest known hand salute. It consists of holding the right arm straight out from the shoulder, elevated about forty-five degrees. It was widely used throughout the world until World War II. In the United States, civilians gave the Bellamy salute, based on the Roman gesture, while reciting Francis Bellamy's Pledge of Allegiance. It wasn't until 1942 that the U.S. Congress abolished the extended-arm salute in favor of the current hand-over-the-heart gesture. That decision was in reaction to events in Europe; Benito Mussolini and the Fascist Party of Italy, seeking to revive the spirit of the Roman Empire, had adopted the Roman salute in the early 1920s. Adolf Hitler copied it, and it developed such a close association with Nazis that it has rarely been used by any organization not specifically linking itself to the Nazis since then. One exception to this involves swearing in ceremonies in the Republic of China (Taiwan) where a Roman-like salute is used while an oath of office is taken, although the person making the salute is usually reading an oath of office held in the left hand while making the salute.

Many secret societies develop gestures to signal fellow members. In 1830s Missouri, some Mormons formed a militia organization called the Sons of Dan, more commonly known as the Danite band, which developed a salute "whereby ye may know each other anywhere, either by day or night, and if a brother be in distress. It is thus: to clap the right hand to the thigh, and then raise it quick to the right temple, the thumb extending behind the ear."

A common kung fu salute involves making one hand into a fist and covering it with the other hand. There are considerable differences between different traditions as to which hand is made into a fist, and what the salute symbolizes, although it has been noted that unlike a handshake or an elaborate Western-style salute, the kung fu salute does not compromise one's immediate ability to defend one's self. In fact, it is often, perhaps primarily used to salute an opponent prior to sparring.

Small Arms Salutes

When carrying a sword (which is still done on ceremonial occasions), European military forces and their cultural descendants use a two-step gesture. The sword is first raised, in the right hand, to the level of and close to the front of the neck. The blade is inclined forward and up 30 degrees from the vertical; the true edge is to the left. Then the sword is slashed downward to a position with the point close to the ground in front of the right foot. The blade is inclined down and forward with the true edge to the left. This gesture originated in the Crusades. The hilt of a broadsword formed a cross with the blade, so if an actual crucifix was not available, a Crusader could kiss the hilt of his sword when praying, before entering battle, for oaths and vows, and so on. The lowering of the point to the ground is a traditional act of submission.

When armed with a rifle, two different levels of formality are available when saluting. The most formal method is called "present arms"; the rifle is brought to the vertical, muzzle up, in front of center of the chest with the trigger away from the body. The hands hold the stock close to the positions they would have if the rifle were being fired, though the trigger is not touched. Less formal salutes include the "order arms salute" and the "shoulder arms salutes." These are most often given by a sentry to a low-ranking superior who does not rate the full "present arms" salute. In the "order arms salute," the rifle rests on its butt by the sentry's right foot, held near the muzzle by the sentry's right hand, and does not move. The sentry brings his flattened left hand across his body and touches the rifle near its muzzle. When the rifle is being carried on the shoulder, a similar gesture is used in which the flattened free hand is brought across the body to touch the rifle near the rear of the receiver.

Heavy Arms : Gun Salutes

Naval cannon fire

The custom of firing cannon salutes originated in the British Royal Navy. When a cannon was fired, it partially disarmed the ship, so firing a cannon needlessly showed respect and trust. The British, being the dominant naval power, compelled the ships of weaker nations to make the first salute. At first ships were required to fire seven guns, and forts, with their more numerous guns and a larger supply of gunpowder, to fire twenty-one times. Later, as the quality of gunpowder improved, the British increased the number of shots required from ships to match the forts.

As naval customs evolved, the 21-gun salute came to be reserved for heads of states, and a lesser numbers of guns or gunshots were used to salute lower ranking officials.

In the colonial context

In the British Empire (originally in the maritime and hinterland- sphere of influence of the East India Company, HEIC, later transformed into crown territories), mainly in British India, the numbers of guns fired as a gun salute to the ruler of a so-called princely state became a politically highly significant indicator of his status, not governed by objective rules, but awarded (and in various cases increased) by the British paramount power, roughly reflecting his state's socio-economic, political and/or military weight, but also as a prestigious reward for loyalty to the raj, in classes (always uneven numbers) from 3 to 21 (7 lacking), for the 'vassal' indigenous rulers (normally hereditary with a throne, sometimes raised as a personal distinction for an individual ruling prince). Two sovereign monarchies officially outside the Empire were actually granted a higher honour : 31 guns for the royal houses of Afghanistan (under British and Russian influence) and Siam. This subject is discussed in more detail and fascinating historical and genealogical context on Christopher Buyer's website [2] (, mainly in the vast section devoted to INDIA and PAKISTAN, but also in sections (some are still under construction) devoted to other countries, mainly in the Commonwealth, usually considered as strategically valuable tot the British Royal Navy, such as various ports in Arabia (in present UAE, Bahrain and Kuwait the lowest ranks, 3 or 5 guns, were awarded), Malaysia and Indonesia (under British in stead of Dutch rule some time during the Napoleonic wars), and even a few odd men out, such as the kabaka in Uganda and the British-protected King of the Mosquito Indians (of the coast of present Nicaragua). In addition, the right to style himself Highness (Majesty, which since its Roman origin expresses the sovereign authority of the state, was denied to all 'vassals'), a title of great importance in international relations, was formally restricted to rulers of relatively high salute ranks (originally only those with 11 guns or more, later also those with 9 guns).

Aerial salutes

Gun salute by aircraft, primarily displayed during funerals, began with simple fly-overs during World War I and have evolved into the missing man formation, where either a formation of aircraft is conspicuously missing an element, or where a single plane abruptly leaves a formation.

A casual salute by an aircraft, somewhat akin to waving to a friend, is the custom of "waggling" the wings by partially rolling the aircraft first to one side, and then the other.

From United States Army Field Manual FM 22-5

The rules of saluting are as follows:

  • When you meet someone outside, salute as soon as you recognize an officer (when about six steps away).
  • Salute all officers (recognized by rank) in official vehicles identified by special plates or flags.
  • Salute only on command when in formation.
  • If in a group and an officer approaches, the first soldier to recognize the officer calls the group to attention and all personnel salute.
  • If you approach an officer while you are double-timing alone, assume quick time march and render the hand salute. When the salute is returned, execute order arms and resume double-timing.
  • The salute is always initiated by the subordinate and is terminated only after acknowledgement by the individual being saluted.
  • Accompany the salute with an appropriate greeting, such as, “Good morning/afternoon, sir/ma’am.“
  • Salutes are not required to be rendered by or to personnel who are driving or riding in privately owned vehicles.
  • It is not customary for enlisted personnel to exchange salutes, except in some ceremonial situations.
  • Never render a salute with a noticeable object in your mouth or right hand.
  • If you are on detail and an officer approaches, salute if you are in charge of the detail. Otherwise, continue to work. If you are spoken to, then come to attention.

It is a widely-believed myth that in the United States military all personnel are required to initiate a salute to a Medal of Honor recipient, regardless of rank. Nothing in United States military regulations relates specifically to the Medal of Honor except for its order of precedence on the uniform. Custom, however, does dictate that a general should salute a private if the private has the Medal of Honor. In the United Kingdom, a similar fiction attaches to holders of the Victoria Cross.

Salutes in Fiction

In the 1984 movie 1984 (though not the novel), the proles are seen at a frenzied "Two Minute Hate" waving both clenched fists overhead with their wrists crossed. The power that would ordinarily be shown by the clenched fists is undercut by the wrists being held as if bound. A very similar gesture is seen in Pink Floyd's The Wall, but there the wrists are repeatedly banged together -- an expression more powerful than seen in 1984 but still frustrated.

In the television series The Prisoner, inhabitants of The Village make a significant gesture of farewell: each forms a ring of right thumb and index finger while extending the other three fingers and looks through that ring with the right eye. He then lowers his hand toward his companion as if handing him something, while saying "be seeing you." This gesture takes its significance from the surveillance ubiquitous in The Village.

On the science-fiction series Babylon 5, a telepathic character uses the Prisoner salute -- except he brings the ring up to his forehead instead of his eye.

On the British comedy series Red Dwarf, crewman Arnold Rimmer invents several elaborate salutes in an unsuccessful attempt to impress his senior officers. These include the "Triple Rimmer" (like the US military salute, except the hand is held up and rotated at the wrist three times before bringing it to the brow), the "Full Rimmer" (five rotations), and the "Two-Handed Rimmer" (for formal occasions; performing a Full Rimmer with each hand simultaneously).

In Star Trek, the Vulcans salute by showing their right palms and spreading their middle finger and ring finger apart, while keeping their middle and index and their little and ring fingers together. Leonard Nimoy based this salute on a Jewish gesture in which the hand approximates the shape of the Hebrew letter shin, the first letter in Shaddai, a name for the Almighty.

In Futurama, Zapp Brannigan salutes by raising his right hand clenched in a fist face down up to his heart, then extended face down up to his right eyebrow (as in a United States military salute), then extending the arm in a horizontal arc, as if flying away. All three parts are performed in one continuous motion.

In Tolkien's fantasy novel The Lord of the Rings, the soldiers of the Hosts of Minas Tirith in Gondor salute by holding their right hand in a fist over their heart with the enclosed palm facing inwards. This is often accompanied by a half bow or a tip of the head forward, when possible.

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