…We Salute You
The good-mannered custom of men removing their hats began in Medieval churches as a gesture of respect to God. Then men began removing hats indoors, and also while passing or speaking to women or someone especially honorable. Women, on the other hand, were historically welcome to wear their hats full time almost anywhere indoors or out, and especially in church, since removing it would expose hair and flesh and may spark unwholesome thoughts in nearby men. Quite conversely, Orthodox Jewish men show humility to God by keeping their head covered, and single women in synagogues are discouraged from wearing hats at all.
Armor-wearing knights used to lift the visors of their helmets to show their face to their kings and queens in friendliness and respect. The usually-favored right hand was used to prove it didn’t hold a weapon, which also showed submission to their monarch. Many years later in the mid-1700s, soldiers who previously removed their hats or helmets while passing officers were ordered “only to clap up their hands to their hats and bow as they pass [their officers].” This was both safer, since no helmets were removed on a battlefield, and since removing part of the uniform – even a hat or helmet – was increasingly viewed as disrespectful. Hence, the right hand-to-forehead salute caught on, and, with some regional variation, is still the norm (though is now more proper if the saluter is hatless, and palms-down in the navy to hide palms made dirty by typical ship work).
In East Asian countries, bowing is more common as a greeting, a goodbye, conveying an apology or thanks, and an indication of respect. It also plays a role in martial arts, tea ceremonies, and religious ceremonies, and bowing has it’s own etiquette involving depth and length of bow and proper response to another’s bow. Zen Buddhists begin the day with 108 bows, and sometimes many more bows may be in order. Notably, the term “kowtow” comes from the forehead-to-the-ground bow used to show the highest reverence in the older Imperial Chinese tradition. In the US, bowing was common in the republic’s early days but slowly disappeared and was very rare by WWII. Thomas Jefferson may have sped bowing’s American decline; this president reportedly preferred handshakes.
The “curtsy,” or rough female equivalent of the bow, is shortened from “courtesy,” and wasn’t always just for women. Though less common now, it still might be seen to acknowledge those of higher rank, Royal Family members, or for a ballerina to salute her teacher or the musician.
The “Bellamy Salute” that American children were taught to give the flag since 1890 would strike modern viewers as disturbingly similar to the Nazi salute. For this reason, it was replaced in 1942 by the current “right hand over the heart” salute, which Americans are also encouraged to do when the Star Spangled Banner plays.
The great honor of a 21-gun salute was born of a combination of symbolism and storage space. The practice of saluting with cannons is nearly as old as cannons themselves, and early ships began using salutes of seven guns, likely because that number had astrological and Biblical significance. However, batteries on land could store more gunpowder than ships and hence fire more, so a multiplier of 3 was chosen, likely also because the number had mystical significance in many ancient civilizations. In the US, the 21 gun salute has been the presidential salute since 1842, the internationally-recognized salute since 1875, and the national salute since 1890.
Star Trek’s famous Vulcan split-finger “live long and prosper” salute made famous by Spock came from one of Leonard Nimoy’s vivid childhood memories. The shape is approximately that of the Hebrew letter shin, first letter of many important words, including “Shekhinah” which is both a name for the feminine aspect of God and a prayer to bless the congregation. As a boy, the curious Nimoy opened his eyes during a Boston synagogue service when he wasn’t supposed to (as this deity is said to shine with brilliant light) and saw many people making this shape, though with two hands together. Nimoy later proposed that the single-handed shape should be used as a salutation and greeting among Vulcans in the first episode (“Amok Time”) when we meet others of his race.