If You Can Keep Your Head…

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Back when I was an eighth-grader, children were required to memorize poems. I can still recite much of If by Kipling. The poem begins

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you
But make allowance for their doubting too,

and ends

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,

Or walk with kings–nor lose the common touch,

If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you;

If all men count with you, but none too much,

If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,

Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,

And–which is more–you’ll be a Man, my son!

I recall really liking that one.

Back then, girls just translated the gendered stuff internally and applied the “masculine” virtues to themselves.

If you can keep your head.

Have you ever noticed how many idioms and expressions make use of the word head?

(One of our Forum members, Heaven, got me started on this.)

Head as a Noun
As a noun, head can mean:

foam on a glass of beer – This meaning existed as early as 1545.
water closet on a ship – from 1748, based on location of crew toilet in the bow (or head) of a ship
leader of a tribe or other collection of people
source of a river (head waters)
upper end of a bed
business end of an arrow, spear, ax
part of a boil or pimple that is ready to burst (Things “come to a head” and then break loose.)
obverse of a coin (“tails” is the “reverse” of a coin)
one person/animal as in “head count” and “twenty head of cattle”
top part of grain Ex. a head of corn, a head of wheat

Head as a Verb
to set one’s course: Ex. We headed for home. (originally a nautical term)
to have authority over: Ex. He heads a giant corporation.

Head in combination with other elements
header – a dive headfirst into a pool
header – information typed at the top of a page
headfirst -“head foremost”
headstrong (1398) – stubborn, determined to have one’s way
headquarters (1647) – where military (or other) leaders have their offices
headroom (1851) – space above the head, as in a train.
headphone — This modern sounding coinage was first noted in 1914.
headlight (1861) Before there were automobiles, trains and ships needed lights in front.
headmaster/headmistress – head teacher
behead – execute by chopping off the head

to decapitate is to chop off someone’s head. It derives from caput, Latin for “head.” Capital punishment was originally decapitation. A state capital is the state’s “head or chief city.” The word chief, while we’re at it, also means “head.” It comes into English from French. It came into French from, you guessed it, Latin caput.

Then there are the idioms:
Keep your head. Remain calm in stressful circumstances.
Lose your head. Lose control because of some overpowering emotion.
have a level head – able to remain calm and exercise good judgment
Get a head start. Begin before other participants.
Give him his head. Let him do as he pleases. (from horseback riding)
He’s in over his head. He is involved in some activity which he is unable to deal with. The image is that of drowning.

I’ve only scratched the surface, but if I don’t quit citing examples of “head” idioms, I’ll go out of my head.

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5 thoughts on “If You Can Keep Your Head…”

  1. You got a good head, really. You only scratched the surface. I nearly scratched my head. Anyway, keep your head.

  2. What about headlines?
    I’ve heard “can’t make head of it”, meaning to be at a loss
    In Arabic,the head of of the month refers to the beginning.
    To say that a person is brilliantn clever we can describe them as “a head”
    In the Moroccan culture hard head refers to being stubborn and narrow minded

  3. I hated memorizing poems (“If” was one I had to memorize), but a funny thing happened on the way to English class… I ended up loving the poems I had to memorize. I still know “Eldorado” by Edgar Allan Poe.

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