To touch or tug one's forelock as an informal salute to a (supposed) superior probably originated in Nelson's Navy. First recorded in writing by Harriet Martineau in 1832:
"There was plenty of bobbing from the girls and pulling of forelocks from the boys."
In days when hats were more generally worn, who uncovered his head to whom was a question of profound etiquette. The Duc de Saint-Simon wrote a book of 100,000 words entirely devoted to the question of who uncovers or tugs forelock to whom.
Those without a hat or cap signalled respect by touching or tugging their forelocks. It is a kind of salute. To raise one's cap or hat, or at any rate to touch its brim, is an appropriate gesture of greeting to friends, acquaintances, and even strangers.
A lock of hair that grows from or falls on the forehead, especially the part of a horse's mane that falls forward between the ears.
Source: The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition
tug one's forelock = to touch the front of one's head as a sign of respect
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