How Does One Become A Knight?

Sir Francis Chichester is knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 1967.
Sir Francis Chichester is knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 1967.
Fox Photos/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

What does it really mean to become a knight? Do you get a sword and a squire to boss around? Inquiring minds want to know, so we did a bit of research. Here are the answers to some of your most pressing knighthood-related questions.

WHAT EXACTLY IS A KNIGHTHOOD?

Since 1917, the British government has been awarding notable citizens with spots in the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, which just recently welcomed Beatle Ringo Starr into its ranks. Although the Order, which was established by King George V, was originally meant to honor top-notch civilian and military behavior in wartime, it quickly expanded to include peacetime achievements as well.

The Order has five separate ranks: Knight and Dame Grand Cross (GBE), Knight and Dame Commander (KBE and DBE, respectively), Commander (CBE), Officer (OBE), and Member (MBE). Achieving one of the first two ranks earns a person a slot in the knighthood, which means they can add "Sir" or "Dame" to their names, i.e. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Dame Judi Dench. All members of the Order of the British Empire can add the initials of their rank to the end of their names, though, which is why you sometimes read about celebrities with ranks following their names, like "Roger Daltrey CBE."

CAN NON-BRITISH CITIZENS BE KNIGHTED?

Sort of. Notable non-Brits are only eligible for honorary knighthood, meaning they aren’t allowed to add “Sir” or "Dame" to their names. They do, however get to append the suffix “KBE” to their monikers if they so desire. Bono, Bill Gates, Steven Spielberg, and Michael Bloomberg are all technically “KBEs.” If any of them later become citizens of the realm, the honor is usually made substantive and they are “bumped up” into real knighthood. In 2005, Irish-born BBC personality Terry Wogan received an honorary knighthood, and when he became a British citizen later that year, he could start making people call him Sir Terry Wogan.

WHO DECIDES WHO GETS TO BE A KNIGHT?

Technically, the reigning monarch is the sovereign of the Order and is in charge of making all appointments. On a more practical level, though, the monarch receives counsel and recommendations from the Secretary of State for Defence and the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs.

Lieutenant General Sir Oliver Leese (1894 - 1978) of the British Army receives a knighthood from King George VI, during the King's visit with the Eighth Army in Italy, 26th July 1944
Lieutenant General Sir Oliver Leese of the British Army receives a knighthood from King George VI, during the King's visit with the Eighth Army in Italy in 1944.
Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Membership in the Order of the British Empire is available for all sorts of reasons, from superlative civil or military service to artistic achievement to charity work.

WHAT DO YOU HAVE TO DO TO GET A KNIGHTHOOD?

While lots of notable figures are offered the honor of joining the Order of the British Empire, only a few heavy-hitters get to become knights and dames commander. Simply put, these higher honors go to the bigger names. For example, current Dames Commander include Judi Dench, Jane Goodall, and Helen Mirren. Generally, it's a good idea to make a pretty substantial service and cultural contribution to the British realm.

A few members of the Order of the British Empire aren't technically knights within the organization's hierarchy, but they're allowed to call themselves "Sir." These guys have been knighted by the monarchy, but not as part of an order of chivalry like the Order of the British Empire. They can call themselves "Sir," but don’t have any additional letters added to their names. Elton John, Paul McCartney, and some other famous "Sirs" have this type of knighthood.

DO YOU HAVE TO BE A KNIGHT IF IT'S OFFERED TO YOU?

Nope. In fact, a number of people have turned down the honor due to uneasiness with its militaristic or imperialist overtones. According to an AP story, approximately two percent of the 3000 or so people offered spots in the Order each year decline them.

A photo of David Bowie circa 1970
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

David Bowie supposedly twice declined offers to join, including an offer of knighthood in 2003, because he felt the whole business was a waste of time. John Cleese rejected a CBE and said he felt much more honored when a Swiss zoologist named a lemur after him in 2005. Vanessa Redgrave became a Commander of the British Empire in 1967, but she turned down an offer of damehood in 1999. When asked about the decision to just say no in 2002, Redgrave told The Independent, "My difficulty is in receiving anything that says British Empire, because I am a Unicef special representative at the service of children from any country. If there were no mention of the British Empire, I would be as honored as anybody. If I were asked to be a baroness, for example, I would see that in a different light."

Keith Richards turned down a spot as Commander of the British Empire and viciously mocked bandmate Mick Jagger for taking a knighthood, which he called a "f***ing paltry honour."

Generally, when a person declines an honor, they don't crow to the media about it. Rather, they discreetly tell the tale after some time has passed.

WHAT ARE THE BENEFITS OF BEING A KNIGHT?

You don't get to joust or wear armor, but you do pick up a few unusual garments. Knights and Dames Grand Cross get to wear special gear to formal events like coronations. This getup includes a pink-with-gray-edges satin mantle and a collar of six gold medallions.

 Queen Elizabeth II shakes hands after knighting Sir Rodney Williams upon his appointment as Governor-General of Antigua and Barbuda during an audience at Windsor Castle on December 5, 2014 in Windsor, United Kingdom
Queen Elizabeth II shakes hands after knighting Sir Rodney Williams in 2014.
Jonathan Brady, WPA Pool/Getty Images

All members of the Order are allowed to wear the group's badge. The badge is basically a cross hanging from a pink ribbon with gray edges, although various ranks wear their badges in unique ways. Members and Officers simply wear their badges like military medals pinned to their chests, while higher-ups wear theirs on sashes or around their necks.

Other benefits include getting a spot in the British order of precedence, the arcane system that develops the hierarchy of ceremonial importance for things like state dinners. Furthermore, knights win their wives the right to be called "Lady," and Knights and Dames Grand Cross can modify their coats of arms to reflect the honor.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

An earlier version of this post originally appeared in 2009.

What Makes Dogs Tilt Their Heads?

iStock.com/JoeChristensen
iStock.com/JoeChristensen

By tilting its head slightly to the side, a dog can melt the heart of even the most hardened cat person. Most everyone finds this behavior adorable, but few people can explain what compels a dog to do it. Are dogs somehow aware of the effect they have on humans, using a cute trick to exploit us for affection?

Experts say the real answer has more to do with your dog's ability to empathize. Dogs are impressively good at reading and responding to our body language and vocal cues. When you're lecturing your pooch for taking food off the counter, they're taking it all in even if the literal message gets lost in translation. Same goes for when you’re giving your pup praise. Dogs are capable of recognizing certain parts of human language, so when they cock their heads as you speak to them, it's possible they're listening for specific words and inflections they associate with fun activities like meals and playtime.

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The head-tilt may also have something to do with how the canine ear is constructed. Even though dogs sense frequencies humans are incapable of hearing, their ability to detect the source of sounds is less precise than ours. A dog's brain calculates extremely minuscule differences between the time it takes a sound to reach each ear, so a simple change in head position could provide them with useful sensory information. When dogs tilt their heads, some experts believe they are adjusting their pinnae, or outer ears, in order to better pinpoint the location of a noise.

Stanley Coren of Psychology Today believes that vision also has something to do with this behavior. If you try holding your fist in front of your nose, you can get a fair sense of what it’s like to view the world with a muzzle. When watching someone speak, the "muzzle" will block the lower part of their face from view, and if you tilt your head to one side you will be able to see it more clearly. In addition to being able to perceive emotional cues in our voices, dog can also read our facial expressions. When cocking their heads to the side, Coren suggests that dogs are trying to get a better view of our mouths, where our most expressive facial cues originate.

If your dog is a frequent head-tilter, this could mean that they're especially empathetic. Some experts have reported that dogs who are more socially apprehensive are less likely to tilt their heads when spoken to. But if your dog doesn't display this behavior, there's no need to automatically label them as a canine sociopath (especially if they have pointy ears or a flatter snout). And even if the head tilt does come from instinct, the more owners respond to it with positive reinforcement, the more likely dogs are to do it in search of praise.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, send it to bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

Where Did the Phrase 'Red Herring' Come From?

iStock.com/Mathias Darmell
iStock.com/Mathias Darmell

You may have seen a red herring in a recent book or movie, but you probably only realized it after the fact. These misleading clues are designed to trick you into drawing an incorrect conclusion, and they're a popular ploy among storytellers of all stripes.

If you've seen or read the Harry Potter series—and really, who hasn’t?—then you may recall some of the many instances where J.K. Rowling employed this literary device. That endearing plot twist about the nature of Snape's character, for example, is likely one of the longest-running red herrings ever written.

Sometimes they aren't even subtle. Agatha Christie's murder mystery And Then There Were None directly mentions red herring in reference to a character's death, and a statue of a red herring appears in Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events. Perhaps most blatantly, a character in the cartoon A Pup Named Scooby-Doo who was constantly being blamed for myriad crimes was named—you guessed it—Red Herring.

But where does this literary device come from, and why is it named after a fish? For a bit of background: herring are naturally a silvery hue, but they turn reddish-brown when they're smoked. Long before refrigerators were invented, this was done to preserve the fish for months at a time. They can also be pretty smelly. As Gizmodo's io9 blog points out, it was believed that red herring were dragged against the ground to help train hounds to sniff out prey in the 17th century. Another theory was that escaped prisoners used the fish to cover their tracks and confuse the dogs that tailed them.

However, io9 notes that red herring were actually used to train horses rather than dogs, and only if the preferred choice—a dead cat—wasn't available. The idea was that the horses would get used to following the scent trail, which in turn would make them less likely to get spooked while "following the hounds amid the noise and bustle of a fox hunt," notes British etymologist and writer Michael Quinion, who researched the origin of the phrase red herring.

The actual origin of the figurative sense of the phrase can be traced back to the early 1800s. Around this time, English journalist William Cobbett wrote a presumably fictional story about how he had used red herring as a boy to throw hounds off the scent of a hare. He elaborated on this anecdote and used it to criticize some of his fellow journalists. "He used the story as a metaphor to decry the press, which had allowed itself to be misled by false information about a supposed defeat of Napoleon," Quinion writes in a blog. "This caused them to take their attention off important domestic matters."

According to Quinion, an extended version of this story was printed in 1833, and the idiom spread from there. Although many people are more familiar with red herrings in pop culture, they also crop up in political spheres and debates of all kinds. Robert J. Gula, the author of Nonsense: Red Herrings, Straw Men and Sacred Cows: How We Abuse Logic in Our Everyday Language, defines a red herring as "a detail or remark inserted into a discussion, either intentionally or unintentionally, that sidetracks the discussion."

The goal is to distract the listener or opponent from the original topic, and it's considered a type of flawed reasoning—or, more fancifully, a logical fallacy. This application of red herring seems to be more in line with its original usage, but as Quinion notes: "This does nothing to change the sense of red herring, of course: it's been for too long a fixed part of our vocabulary for it to change. But at least we now know its origin. Another obscure etymology has been nailed down."

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