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I came across the phrase, ‘touching the side of his nose with a forefinger’ in Jeffery Archer’s short story titled ‘Politically Correct’. The hero of the story warns the porter of his apartment about a neighbor he feels ‘dodgy’:

‘Keep your ear to the ground, Dennis,’ he added, touching the side of his nose with a forefinger. ‘Although our masters have decided it’s not politically correct, I have to tell you I don’t like the look of him.’

It seems to me the gesture of touching the side of nose to be a sign of saying ‘be careful.’ Am I correct? Though using the forefinger, not the middle finger, isn’t this gesture confused with the bird? I’m asking this as we Japanese don’t have this kind of gestures, but for pointing my own nose with a forefinger, signifying ‘It’s me.’

Additionally, I’m thankful if you tell me who ‘our masters’ are?

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closed as off topic by kiamlaluno, F'x, Mitch, simchona, Daniel Sep 9 '11 at 17:42

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As a native English speaker I've never heard of this being a gesture. –  Billy ONeal Sep 9 '11 at 0:29
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It's much more a Mediterranean thing (primarily Italian, I think). I always "verbalise" it as "A word to the wise", meaning "Not everybody knows what I'm telling you, but you will be the wiser for paying close attention". And "our masters" probably means the shadowy rich and powerful people who really run the country. It might simply mean the overtly-known political leaders, but knowing a bit about how Archer writes, I imagine it's the first definition. –  FumbleFingers Sep 9 '11 at 0:40
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This is a common gesture amongst my friends, but I think we picked it up from Monty Python. I don't believe it is common in my region (US-New England). –  KitFox Sep 9 '11 at 1:14
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A Vist from St Nick ... "And laying his finger aside of his nose,/ And giving a nod, up the chimney he rose;" –  GEdgar Sep 9 '11 at 14:03
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@Kitḫ - The only Python I can think of where this happens is the guy with the tape player up his nose. –  T.E.D. Sep 9 '11 at 18:57

5 Answers 5

I've seen several interpretations of this action, and people have different interpretations, but most of them agree on the fact that the person doing this action knows something.

The meanings vary slightly, including:

Secrecy -- But if they are tapping the side of their nose, that is more along the lines of: it's a secret.

Secret, that you keep to yourself -- I would say that the tap on the side of the nose, or more commonly a double tap, indicates I am telling you a secret which you must not repeat

A move in charades, to let the team know they've guessed right

Used to indicate that the person has knowledge concerning a matter, and that his advice is trustworthy -- Take my advice, I know these things.(taps nose)

But I think, in view of the context, the protagonist of the story is tapping his nose to indicate that he knows what he's talking about, and he wants Dennis to trust him, and that he(the protagonist) has knowledge concerning this matter.

It could also, as @Kith points out, mean that the protagonist wants Dennis to keep whatever he says as a secret.

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I disagree with your interpretation. I think it is the first definition of this gesture—the man is indicating that he is telling Dennis something in confidence. That is, he is gesturing the equivalent of "just between you and me." –  KitFox Sep 9 '11 at 1:23
    
Why does the protagonist then say "I have to say I don't like the look of him –  Thursagen Sep 9 '11 at 9:08
    
@Thursagen - because that is what he is confiding in Dennis. –  Matt Эллен Sep 9 '11 at 10:16
    
Sure. That makes sense to me. –  Thursagen Sep 9 '11 at 10:17

The gesture is used to suggest that the one giving the gesture knows something that is pertinent to the one being gestured to. Typically (though not always) it also indicates that the one giving the gesture is unable or unwilling to outright reveal what they know.

A very similar gesture is used in the game "Charades" to indicate a correct guess

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+1 for the key point of the gesturer being unwilling or unable to reveal what they know. –  John N Sep 9 '11 at 7:24

Though using the forefinger, not the middle finger, isn’t this gesture confused with the bird?

Note that the nose-tapping gesture is usually made with the back of the hand facing the side, rather than the front, so there is almost no danger of confusion. You can see the gesture in this photograph.

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The information on the linked page is useful, too. +1. –  Marthaª Sep 9 '11 at 15:25

I usually interpret this gesture as being equivalent to another common one: the wink of one eye.

The speaker is sharing something in confidence, indicating he knows more than he can tell. He's sharing a bond of kinship.

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I always understood that gesture (most commonly seen in the game Charades, as the host is supposed to communicate without speaking) to mean "you got that on the nose" (iow: perfectly correct).

In the context you gave, I don't think that's it though. Most likely its an indication that the person should use his nose in this situation too. Coupled with a verbalization to "keep an ear to the ground", I'd probably take it as indicating that he's saying the person should keep all senses alert.

The human sense of smell is heavily tied into our subconscious too. So it could be taken as an indication to pay attention to your instincts, or what your subconcious mind is trying to tell you.

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