I am a native French speaker and I do work as a translator in the legal field, and literature (mainly fantasy).

I need an explanation for ‘tapped on the shoulder’:

As for full-time appointments, the frank stories indicated how small the old-boy network had been. All but one of the senior judges and some veteran district and circuit judges had been tapped on the shoulder for their full-time job.

From my point of view, it means that they have been recommended by some people, like when you apply for a job along with several others, but it’s already attributed to someone else (like the son of a director, etc.).

I might be wrong. Would you mind explaining this idiom?

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    You tap the shoulder to ask a question: Want a certain job? In the closed circle of WASP males, the judges were invited. Commented Jan 16, 2022 at 15:11
  • 1
    Nepotism. Ring-fencing. Commented Jan 16, 2022 at 15:23
  • See also Headhunting. Typically among an "in" group of people. Commented Jan 17, 2022 at 11:49
  • Also used where you think you can identify the best people yourself and mistrust those who might apply for the job (suspecting it would be for the wrong reason). The real problem is that it excludes people who you might never have considered.
    – Henry
    Commented Jan 17, 2022 at 17:59
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    Doesn't apply in this context, but note that being "tapped on the shoulder" can also have a different meaning: being told that the powers that be have decided that your time is up, and it's time to hand over to someone else. At least in Australia. Commented Jan 18, 2022 at 7:06

7 Answers 7


tapped on the shoulder”

In this British (possibly only English - but I doubt it) legal context, it specifically means "approached for the purpose of enquiring if the person metaphorically tapped would want to be a judge." In such circumstances the appointment as a judge is virtually certain.

What Do We Know About This Judge?

In my opinion, Devlin understates this point. All of the biographies I have read relate to people who were appointed by means of the proverbial ‘tap on the shoulder’. There was no formal appointments process. Each was summoned to go and see the Lord Chancellor. This ‘tête à tête’ was not an interview. The Lord Chancellor had already taken ‘soundings’. The purpose of the meeting was to enable the Lord Chancellor to make an offer. The ‘tap on the shoulder’ process was the complete antithesis of transparency.

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    4. US to choose or designate, as for membership in a club Collins Dictionary.
    – Lambie
    Commented Jan 16, 2022 at 19:05
  • thank you, this explain why two sentences later, the author is speaking about "Apostolic" succession. Commented Jan 17, 2022 at 7:53
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    AU as well. And not just legal or necessarily OBC/nepotistic as comments to the question suggest. Someone can get a tap on the shoulder if the tapper knows the prospect is an absolute shoe-in for the position, but is unlikely to be aware of or for some other reason is not expected to apply for the job otherwise.
    – mcalex
    Commented Jan 17, 2022 at 16:07

In the U.S. tap alone is used to mean selected/designated. In my opinion, it's more common here than "tap on the shoulder."

Edit: in AmE. to tap is neutral, without a connotation of favoritism or nepotism, including the use of "tap on the shoulder" in the example below about the "best teachers." I'm not familiar with the nuances of "tap on the shoulder" in BrE. and the OP's example points to a difference.

tap (v.)


was tapped for police commissioner

specifically: to elect to membership (as in a fraternity) m-w

(usu. be tapped) informal designate or select (someone) for a task or honor, esp. membership in an organization or committee: he had been tapped earlier to serve in Costa Rica. New Oxford American Dictionary

I'd voyaged from New York to Panama on the USS Gibbon when my father was tapped to become military attache to Costa Rica. Megan Edwards; Road from the Ashes (1999)

When Pavia and Harcourt hire her, she promised she would stay with them for as long as she remained in private practice. Botwinik asked that she stay at least until she was tapped to become a Supreme Court Justice. Sylvia Mendoza; Sonia Sotomayor (2019)

But Liscouski did say the feds are looking to build a leadership team, and he specifically wants to tap someone with industry knowledge and business expertise to lead the still vaguely defined effort. Patricia Keefe; "Security Disconnect" in Computerworld, July 21, 2003

Sell knew Ernie had experience, so he tapped him for the job. “One of the reasons I brought him in,” Sell says, “was to establish controls where there were none before.” But Ernie had little respect for controls. Joseph Wells; Corporate Fraud Handbook (2017)

Being tapped on the shoulder [and invited into administration] is problematic. I think it pulls the best teachers out of the classroom. I think the best teachers are always tapped on the shoulder to become an administrator. K. Hunter-Quartz et al.; Making a Difference (2016)

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    I (BrE) remember being very confused by the first panel of this old xkcd comic (AmE) which uses tap in this sense: xkcd.com/398. I eventually looked it up but didn't realise this sense of tap derives from tap on the shoulder, I thought it was just an unusual Americanism.
    – dbmag9
    Commented Jan 17, 2022 at 21:43
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    I can't remember seeing "tapped on the shoulder" used with this sense before answering this question. I don't think the origin comes immediately to mind for an American.
    – DjinTonic
    Commented Jan 17, 2022 at 21:45
  • @DjinTonic It is most certainly a sports reference though. I would assume baseball, from the wiki page on pitchers: "When making a pitching change a manager will come out to the mound. He will then call in a pitcher by the tap of the arm which the next pitcher throws with. "
    – Stian
    Commented Jan 18, 2022 at 9:05
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    @StianYttervik The expression, even meaning selection, predates baseball, and managers tap their left or right arm, not a shoulder.
    – DjinTonic
    Commented Jan 18, 2022 at 10:55
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    @SpehroPefhany If you asked Canadian/US speakers the origin of tapping a person for a position, I wouldn't be surprised if you get a 50-50 distribution of a "tapping a shoulder" vs. "tapping a resource".
    – DjinTonic
    Commented Jan 19, 2022 at 15:48

While I agree with other answers, I also would like to add this:
In certain fraternities, honor societies, and organizations which serve[d] as power networks, [s]election to a higher level is done by a secret process. This may be by a secret ballot in which members may be able to vote for more than one candidate if they feel multiple candidates are qualified, or by some other process.

As part of a ceremony, a member of the higher level describes for all the benefits & obligations of participating in that higher-level network, then requires all to close and cover their eyes, and then literally taps the selected individual(s) on their shoulder to communicate to them and nobody else that they have been selected for this higher-level position. The tapped individual(s) then know that they are supposed to go to a particular place at a particular time, or otherwise mentally and physically prepare for the recently-described next steps in the process.


I love language. Although not formally trained nor specifically instructed the following is pure whimsy from years of reading and some very bizarre trivial knowledge.

Tapping on the shoulder is a selection, not a nomination. Its more of "Hey your up."

I suspect that this has its etymology in Britain with the ceremony for knighthood, when one is literally tapped on the shoulders with the ceremonial blade to serve their lord.

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    – Community Bot
    Commented Jan 18, 2022 at 6:05

Some (semi-)secret societies actually employ a physical tap on the shoulder to nominate an initiate into the society, or to signify an increase in rank or position. As an example, the Boy Scouts Order of the Arrow tap-out ceremony, seen here from 1944: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gaVTZOYynXA


Super simple. Imagine you’re standing at the bus stop. And I - a total stranger standing behind you - want to ask you something. So I gently tap you on the shoulder with my finger - tap, tap. What would you do? You’d turn around to see who touched your shoulder, right? I got your attention.

That’s what tapping someone on their shoulder means: to get their attention.

  • I think you're ignoring the specific judicial context provided in the question. Commented Jul 16, 2022 at 9:39
  • You are right. It seems Urban Dictionary has defined “tapped on the shoulder” as being fired from the job (laid off). So in the context given, it means that all except a few were laid off from their full time jobs.
    – Simon Says
    Commented Jul 16, 2022 at 11:44

It seems Urban Dictionary has defined “tapped on the shoulder” as being fired from the job (laid off). So in the context given, it means that all except a few were laid off from their full time jobs.

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