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This picture troubled me:


It seems that the person at the right side of the photograph is saluting with his left hand.  I wondered whether that is permissible in the armed forces?

I asked Captain James Fanell, a retired high-ranking naval officer in the Pacific Fleet, how to explain the saluting behavior of this sailor.  His reply:

There is only one person who is authorized to salute with their left hand, the boatswain.

While the Bos’n pipes aboard senior officers and dignitaries with his/her right hand they can render honors (saluting) with their left hand.


I. The person being welcomed onboard is U.S. Pacific Fleet Commander Adm. Samuel Paparo, who has been nominated to be the 33rd chief of naval operations

II. The expression "pipes aboard" illustrates nautical usage of "pipe" as a transitive verb with the meaning "order or signal by a note pattern on a boatswain's pipe". (Wiktionary)

  • 1888–1891, Herman Melville, “[Billy Budd, Foretopman.] Chapter XXIII.”, in Billy Budd and Other Stories, London: John Lehmann, published 1951, →OCLCpage 298:
    Pipe down the starboard watch, boatswain, and see that they go.

boatswain's pipe (plural boatswain's pipes)

    1. (nautical) A whistle, previously used by boatswain's mates to pipe orders throughout a ship; now used for the ceremonial piping onboard of visiting dignitaries.
Synonym: boatswain's call


III. Three short videos with illustrative calls:

1. Demonstration of U.S. Navy's Bosun Call (2:07)

2. An Introduction to the Bosun's pipe (8:10)

3. The history of the boatswain‘s pipe in the U.S. Navy (2:51)

IV. Etymology

mid-15c., bot-swein, "minor officer on a ship," from late Old English batswegen, from bat "boat" (see boat (n.)) + Old Norse sveinn "boy" (see swain).

BOATSWAIN. The warrant officer who in the old Navy was responsible for all the gear that set the ship in motion and all the tackle that kept her at rest. [Sir Geoffrey Callender, "Sea Passages," 1943]

He also summons the hands to their duties with a silver whistle. Phonetic spelling bo'sun/bosun is attested from 1840. Fowler [1926] writes, "The nautical pronunciation (bō'sn) has become so general that to avoid it is more affected than to use it."


Cf. coxswain:

early 14c., "officer in charge of a ship's boat and its crew," from cock "ship's boat" (from Old French coque "canoe") + swain "boy," from Old Norse sveinn "boy, servant" (see swain). Short form cox is attested from 1869.



mid-12c., "young man attendant upon a knight," from Old Norse sveinn "boy, servant, attendant," from Proto-Germanic *swainaz "attendant, servant," properly "one's own (man)," from PIE *swoi-no-, from root *s(w)e- "oneself, alone, apart" (see idiom). Cognate with Old English swan "shepherd, swineherd," Old Saxon swen, Old High German swein. Meaning "country or farm laborer" is from 1570s; that of "lover, wooer" (in pastoral poetry) is from 1580s


V. Pronunciation

How to pronounce boatswain:



(English pronunciations of boatswain from the Cambridge Advanced Learner's Dictionary & Thesaurus and from the Cambridge Academic Content Dictionary, both sources © Cambridge University Press)


Now, dear shipmates, go back and look at the photograph at the top of the page.  You will see the botswain's / bosn's pipe clasped in his right hand being blown with the stream of air being expelled from his bulging cheeks.

Selected readings

  • "The Sinophone" (2/28/19) — in the comments
  • "Justice Kennedy interprets the passive" (11/4/09) — in the comments ("I imagine a sea captain insisting that the boatswain stop calling the bittacle a 'binnacle', and the midshipman stop calling the boatswain a 'bosun'."


  1. Jamie said,

    July 7, 2023 @ 5:13 am

    Would someone who has lost (or lost the use of) their right arm be permitted to salute with their left?

  2. Benjamin E. Orsatti said,

    July 7, 2023 @ 7:45 am


    Sure. Do a web image search for "bob dole salute", and you'll find some rather touching photos of the Senator being helped out of his wheelchair to salute (left-handed) his fellow WWII vet — GHWB.

  3. JJM said,

    July 7, 2023 @ 9:19 am

    As Benjamin notes, it's a long-accepted common courtesy to permit military personnel and veterans to salute with the left hand if they cannot use the right one due to injury or loss.

  4. Gene hill said,

    July 7, 2023 @ 10:49 am

    Warning Sailoreze spoken here.

    My souvenir box still holds a silver bosun's pipe that I recovered from the bottom of Subic Bay. It belonged to a bosuns mate who was retired before I could return it to him. He was a beloved character with over twenty years of service. He was only a second class, but he had archived that rank several times. He had spent many years as a navy boxer, and his head and face was a collection of scars and distortions. All injuries which he had treated with copious amounts of alcohol. Like most tin can sailors of that era, he had a rich vocabulary of creative profanity.
    On some occasion we drew the duty to be the open house ship for public presentation. We tied up at pier one and laid an open gangplank for the tourist of moms, dads and kids to come aboard. At some point, a sailor shouted a stream of curses involved with his work. The Officer of the Deck turned to Boats and ordered him to pass the word on the (bitch box) PA system. Boats took his silver pipe and blew Attention, and at full volume, "Now hear this! "All hands will cease and desist using foul and vulgar language while cunt aboard.".

  5. Jim Unger said,

    July 7, 2023 @ 12:15 pm

    I suspect that the pronunciation is /ˈboʊ.zən/ for many speakers. Other nautical terms are also heavily contracted. My favorite is fo'c'sle (/ˈfak.səl/—Melville uses it) for forecastle.

  6. Coby said,

    July 7, 2023 @ 12:22 pm

    The "UK" pronunciation, which is what dictionaries give, is mainly that of Southern England. In the North, Scotland and Northern Ireland it's more like ['bo:sən].

  7. Don said,

    July 7, 2023 @ 4:29 pm

    Gene Hill:

    Every chance I get, I pass along links to this excellent two-part dictionary of "sailoreze"

  8. Taylor, Philip said,

    July 7, 2023 @ 5:10 pm

    Coming from a nautical family on my mother's side, I have been familiar with boatswain/bosun for most of my life. But what I learned from the article above, and what I had never before known or realised, is that it is the gear that sets a ship in motion and the tackle that keeps her at rest.

  9. Joe Fineman said,

    July 7, 2023 @ 5:45 pm

    My father was in the U.S. Navy for a while, and he had a book that I think was called the Midshipman's Manual and that I enjoyed browsing in. It had a chapter on saluting that said (IIRC) that if you had a tool in, or were hanging onto a mast with, your right hand, you might salute with your left. In a notable access of good sense, it went on to say that if you were hanging onto a mast with one hand and had a tool in the other, you should not salute at all.

  10. Mark Metcalf said,

    July 7, 2023 @ 8:16 pm

    Here's what DOD says:

    The salute should not be ended as though the person is waving to someone or trying to get
    something off the fingers. Navy custom permits left-hand saluting when a salute cannot be rendered with the right hand. Army and Air Force customs permit only right-hand salutes

  11. Julian said,

    July 7, 2023 @ 9:01 pm

    "In a notable access of good sense, it went on to say that if you were hanging onto a mast with one hand and had a tool in the other, you should not salute at all."

    I wonder how many men they lost before they figured out that rule …

  12. Mark S. said,

    July 7, 2023 @ 9:05 pm

    Peter Greenaway's Prospero's Books has John Gielgud saying boatswain over and over. NB: It's a Greenaway film and so definitely NSFW.

    Prospero's Books is also one of the only movies I've ever walked out on; but that's neither here nor there when it comes to pronunciation.

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