There used to be a comedian named Rodney Dangerfield (a name which is somehow funny in itself) who built his whole career on a five-word catchphrase: “I don’t get no respect.” This too had its own built-in funny-ness, because we tend to have less respect for people who use grammar incorrectly. But Dangerfield specialized in stories based on self put-downs, in which people failed to treat him the way he felt he deserved to be treated.
And that, of course, is what “respect” is all about – or is it? In many cases, such as in the military, or when dealing with royalty, the respect is not so much deserved as it attaches automatically to the position or rank. Nevertheless, we somehow take it for granted that mothers and fathers deserve respect from their children, that old people are worthy of particular regard from those less gifted in years, that qualified professional people like doctors and teachers should be respected by their patients and students, and that all those charged with administering and enforcing the Law, such as Judges and Police, are to be humbly obeyed, whether worthy or not.
Once we decide on the appropriate respect recipients; the next question is, how is it to be expressed? That is not as simple a proposition as you might think. In some situations, the correct behavior involves covering the head. In others, you should un-cover it. Sometimes standing up straight is the thing to do. But at other times, you must get down on your knees.
One of my favorite anecdotes concerns a group of American tourists who were being shepherded around the British House of Lords by a member of that body, and were very conscious of the need to show proper respect, whenever it was called for. At one point, their guide happens to spot a fellow member named Neil Marten, who was wearing full ceremonial dress – and calls out to him in greeting, “Neil!” The tourists, taking their cue, then all drop to their knees.
I still remember the first time I was called “Sir” by anybody. I was sixteen years old, and was being addressed by a fellow-pupil at the school I attended in London, whom I happened to meet one day in the street. He was a few years younger than I (and therefore in a lower grade) but this unaccustomed form of salutation did not imbue me with a sense of pride. Rather I felt uncomfortable, at the feeling that I was changing, and getting older. Perhaps it’s sad to admit, but I have had similar feelings throughout my life. I didn’t wish to be younger – but I wanted to stay where I was. (This no doubt is why birthdays have failed to excite me.)
But of course, there are many other ways of expressing respect, particularly with hand and arm movements. The Nazis had the extended arm, sometimes accompanied by the word “Heil!” This can probably be traced back at least as far as the Roman Emperors, with their equivalent of “Hail Caesar!”
The familiar military salute of bending the right arm and touching the hand to the forehead probably had its origin in adjusting the visor on a suit of armor.
The Eskimo, or Inuit, practice of touching noses is not so much a matter of respect, but no doubt arose from sheer climatic necessity, when so little of the bare skin is otherwise exposed. So, it’s more akin to shaking hands.
Saluting with the firing of guns probably began at sea, as a means of demonstrating that your ship had no harmful intentions, since, with early naval artillery, once a gun was fired, it was harmless (re-loading being a cumbersome, lengthy process). The 21-gun salute, now considered the top honor for a visiting dignitary, such as a head of state, probably evolved like other multiples of seven, from the supposed magical power of that number, as in the Seven Seas, or the Seven Wonders of the World.
Chinese relations with Britain and other countries, going back several centuries, were soured by the Emperor’s insistence on being kowtowed to by foreign diplomats. The kowtow involved extreme prostration, and touching the head to the floor. The Chinese themselves had always taken it for granted that such obeisance was due to the Emperor.
Such disagreements (also involving the opium trade) ultimately led to war. As justification for the Emperor’s position, some Chinese Rodney Dangerfield might have put it: “He don’t get no respect.”