Thursday, February 20, 2014

Heads Up

Heads Up

The English word head has its unlikely origins in the Proto-Indo-European word kaput. Somehow, as kaput made its centuries-long voyage through German, Dutch, Saxon and/or Frisian to Old English, it morphed to heafod. From Old English it moved into Middle & Modern English, where it managed to drop a syllable & become head.

Along the way it collected dozens of idioms, including:

1200s – head count (applied to people)
1300s – headwaters
1300s – headstrong
1500s – head count (applied to cattle)
1680s – head of a coin
1680s – head on a mug of bear
1748 – head on a ship (toilet)
1911 hophead, which became in time, pothead
1952 – heads up
1972head game
1984 – headbanger

& dozens more.

Because head has changed so much since it started out as kaput, it has a steaming heap of unlikely cousins, all from that same Proto-Indo-European root. Here is a sampling:

capital                                    caput                          madcap
cabbage                    capo                           chief
scalp                          cap                             capsize
chef                            captain                       cob
achieve                      capillary                     cadet
decapitate                 cape                           cephalic
mischief                    precipice                   handkerchief
corporal                     chieftain                     capitulate

Many connections to the head are obvious. Others, not so much. Might any of you have a hare-brained theory as to how some of these words are related to the head? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section.

My thanks go out to this week’s sources: OED, Etymonline, & Wordnik


  1. I love it that "kaput" is the oldest word of old. After trying to see relationships amongst all these words, my own head feels like it's going kaput. Thanks as always, for the enlightenment.

  2. I meant to say "oldest word of all". I wonder how "old" and "all" are related?

  3. is head city. Head of cabbage is redundant. Scalp, which is not remotely similar to kaput, is a synonym for head. To capsize is to turn on one's head, to be madcap is to be a little crazy in the head, to be chieftain, captain, or chef is to be the head, to decapitate is to remove the head, and handkerchiefs were commonly worn on the head.

    But ya got me with "capo."

  4. Hi Rachel6 & Anne,
    I also love the idea that it all started with kaput, when kaput can also let us know it's all over. And the trick to capo is that the 1st meaning of capo isn't the one on the guitar (which has another source), the 1st meaning of capo is "head of the local mafia"!

  5. From my nursing days I recognize cephalic as the medical term for all things related to the head. I love that kaput is the origin. Without one's head one would be pretty much kaput. Capo means head of the local mafia? How far back do mafia's go?

  6. Gee. I never would have guessed that "madcap" was related to "achieve" or "handkerchief" to "cape." And I've never thought about how obviously "mischief" relates to "chief." The only thing I really know about heads is what my mom drilled into me and my sisters, "Men can only think with one head at a time." ;-)