What's the origin of the tap-side-of-nose gesture?
January 7, 2004 7:47 AM   Subscribe

I've often seen co-conspirators in television and the movies tap the side of their nose to remind the other party of their understanding. I think it used to be more common but I saw it again on a modern crime drama while I was visiting my folks. I've looked on google but haven't had any luck.
posted by substrate to Grab Bag (26 answers total)
I always thought it was a "you're right" signal in charades, e.g. when you are the one doing the pantomiming, you touch your nose and point at the person who guessed a right word or phrase, but not the whole phrase. Although it doesn't explain why criminals would use the same signal, the gestures seem to imply similar concepts: collaboration, agreement, understanding.

Does that make sense? I need more caffeine.
posted by whatnot at 7:59 AM on January 7, 2004

What was your question?
posted by stonerose at 8:13 AM on January 7, 2004

I believe it's literally "He [or she] knows". Knows=nose.
posted by notsnot at 8:20 AM on January 7, 2004

My understanding of it has always been that it means "keep it secret" or "keep it hush-hush". I believe it's British in origin (as most of the shows in which I've seen it used have been from there). Googling hasn't helped me come up with a reliable explanation as to its origin, however :(
posted by filmgoerjuan at 8:31 AM on January 7, 2004

Oh, as to whatnot's explanation (that it is used in charades): I believe that the full gesture is to touch your nose with the finger of one hand then point to the person with your other hand (i.e. "you've got it on the nose"). I think what substrate is asking about is where you tap the side of your nose "knowingly".
posted by filmgoerjuan at 8:34 AM on January 7, 2004

I recall it from "The Sting."
posted by mookieproof at 8:36 AM on January 7, 2004

I am no fool (tap one side of the nose);

Found on this page about sign language.

And I promise, I'm not going to post anything else about this ever again ;)
posted by filmgoerjuan at 8:39 AM on January 7, 2004

It is indeed used in The Sting as a way for people to show they're in on the con. I'm not positive, but I believe it's mentioned in this book, also, which is a great read.
posted by dobbs at 8:49 AM on January 7, 2004

Don't forget St. Nick "laying his finger aside of his nose" in "The Night Before Christmas."
posted by staggernation at 8:54 AM on January 7, 2004

Substrate: does the fact you didn't have to type a question mark give you a clue about something?

In my area, tapping the nose after a question was asked means "don't be nosy, I'm not going to tell you".
posted by bonaldi at 9:15 AM on January 7, 2004

Response by poster: The sign language makes some sense (and I had seen that before via google) but I don't know that it's correct or not. I had figured that it was purely a mechanism designed for the stage. Not really to remind the other co-conspirators but a wink and a nod to the audience to remind them that there's some shared information. In real life if I were to see people I was doing business with touching their nose I'd be pretty wary.

So what's the origin of this gesture as it relates as a sign between conspirators?
posted by substrate at 9:20 AM on January 7, 2004

I always thought it was literally nose = knows, like notsnot said.
posted by Dr_Octavius at 1:21 PM on January 7, 2004

the original script of the Sting helps a little...

Gondorff makes a quick snubbing motion on his nose as if flicking off a gnat. This is known among con men as the "office."

perhaps more to come - doing the con men research now.
posted by milovoo at 1:26 PM on January 7, 2004

How about this... It's apparently copyrighted, by the Derbyshire Building Society in England.

that's a pretty fertile clue, but I have to go do real work for a while.
posted by milovoo at 1:39 PM on January 7, 2004

see also Laurel and Hardy, and the Bookhouse Boys (from twin peaks)
posted by milovoo at 2:12 PM on January 7, 2004

Response by poster: Wow, surprising that a gesture can be copyrighted. I remember seeing it on Bewitched and I think the Dick Van Dyke show when I was a wee tyke taking a day off from school.
posted by substrate at 2:53 PM on January 7, 2004

According to the Field Guide to Gestures: How to Identify and Interpret Virtually Every Gesture Known to Man:

"Tapping the finger on the side of the nose means 'We are sharing a secret.'"

There is no citation of provenance, however.
posted by mr_crash_davis at 4:23 PM on January 7, 2004

Now meant as a joke more than anything, but it does now mean either "keep this secret", or "what I'm telling you contains a secret." The jokey version will go something like ... "He likes his bread buttered both sides" (tap nose) (point finger at recipient of infomation) (nod slightly).

Even in the UK, the meaning / geography of this may vary though.
posted by seanyboy at 4:45 PM on January 7, 2004

Plus - I've always thought of it as "Information which can only be smelled." (i.e is ambiguous / not widely known) as in "I sniffed this out". Also compare and contrast with terms such as "Nosy" (Inquisitive).
posted by seanyboy at 4:48 PM on January 7, 2004

And "She's always got her nose in other people's business."
posted by seanyboy at 4:51 PM on January 7, 2004

Response by poster: Thanks everybody, and thanks mr_crash_davis, that seems like an interesting book. I did use some of the words in here to refine my google search, there's a reference in the Oxford English Dictionary to "to wipe one's nose of" which means "to wipe one's nose of, to deprive, defraud, or cheat one of (anything). Obs." which dates back to at least 1598. This might be the origin, it might not be too. Anyway, it's buried in this link.
posted by substrate at 7:32 PM on January 7, 2004

The only time I've ever seen this gesture is when used to indicate discreetly that someone is suffering under the effects of a bit of nasal drug abuse; as sign language for "he's had a toot or two hasn't he?"
posted by majick at 8:16 PM on January 7, 2004

(Along the lines of twirling the finger around the ear.)

So, um, what was the question?
posted by majick at 8:17 PM on January 7, 2004

I think the question is whether it matters if there's a question, when the outcome has been as interesting as this. We've an interesting collection of links now.

Hmmm. One could make a MeFi post about sides-of-noses now...
posted by five fresh fish at 9:37 PM on January 7, 2004

Fascinating. According to this page on Indian Sign Language, tapping the side of the nose means: "I am no fool"
posted by macinchik at 3:14 PM on January 9, 2004

You mean the link I posted earlier, macinchik? ;)
posted by filmgoerjuan at 8:31 AM on January 12, 2004

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