Head over heels

Laurence Horn laurence.horn at YALE.EDU
Mon Feb 15 21:39:04 UTC 2010

At 4:06 PM -0500 2/15/10, Alison Murie wrote:
>On Feb 15, 2010, at 1:31 PM, wordmall wrote:
>>---------------------- Information from the mail header
>>Sender:       American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
>>Poster:       wordmall <wordmall at AOL.COM>
>>Subject:      Head over heels
>>When you dissect it, "head over heels" doesn't make much sense. Our
>>head is SUPPOSED to be over our heels. I understand that the original was
>>"heels over head" (signifying a cartwheel), and that does make sense.
>>My question: is there a word for such a reversal of image? (I can't
>>think of another example at the moment.)
>>Michael J. Sheehan
>While not an image, an example of a saying that intends the opposite
>of what's actually said, is: "I could care less."

Michael Quinion has a nice discussion of this in his blog (World Wide
Words) archive, from 2002:

4. Q&A
Q. I'd like to know how the phrase "head over heels" came about, as
in, "I've fallen head over heels in love with you". [Eddie Sng]

A. That's pretty much a set phrase these days, so that "to be head
over heels" almost always means that one has fallen madly in love
in an impetuous and unconstrained way. But by itself it can also
refer to one's state while turning a somersault or cartwheel. It's
more than a little weird when you think about it - what's so
strange about having one's head over one's heels? After all, we do
spend most of our waking lives in that position.

It looks so odd because during its history it got turned upside
down, just like the idea it represents. When it first appeared,
back in the fourteenth century, it was written as "heels over
head", which makes a lot more sense. Logically, it meant to be
upside down, or, as "to turn heels over head", to turn a

It became inverted around the end of the eighteenth century, it
seems as the result of a series of mistakes by authors who didn't
stop to think about the conventional phrase they were writing. The
two forms lived alongside each other for most of the next century -
the famous Davy Crockett was an early user of the modern form in
1834: "I soon found myself head over heels in love with this girl",
but as late as the beginning of the twentieth century L Frank Baum
consistently used the older form in his Oz books: "But suddenly he
came flying from the nearest mountain and tumbled heels over head
beside them". And Lucy Maud Montgomery stayed with it in her "Anne
of Windy Poplars", published as late as 1936: "Gerald's pole, which
he had stuck rather deep in the mud, came away with unexpected ease
at his third tug and Gerald promptly shot heels over head backward
into the water".
[LH resumes in an entirely speculative vein:]

But I wonder whether the real issue is that the original uses
necessarily involved *falling*, whether literally (down the stairs)
or figuratively (in love).  And when you're seriously falling, your
head goes over your heels, which go over your head, which go over
your heels, and so on until you hit bottom.  Then at some point there
was a reanalysis, with the "fall" part dropping out, creating
opacity.  Parallels are e.g.

"The proof is in the pudding."  [orig. "The proof of the pudding is
in the eating"]
"happy as a clam"                   [orig. "happy as a clam at high tide"]
"Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou?"   [with opacity of "wherefore"]
"meatless chili con carne"

Of course there's a whole range of cases involving hyponegation,
whether or not there's a (conscious?) element of irony, ranging from
"could care less" to "That'll teach you", "fat chance", "near miss",
not to mention hypernegation ("miss not" and its buddies), all
discussed at length here and especially on Language Log.


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