Sunday, July 29, 2007

making head(s) or tail(s)

Continuing on my backlog of old requests: a colleague who's involved in a Catalan-English dictionary project forwarded (back in March) part of a conversation arising from an unfamiliar translation in the project. The Catalan phrase in question was apparently (no) trobar ni caps ni peus, and the lexicographer was questioning the translation of it as (not) to make heads or tails (of something), because she, a BrE speaker, would have said (not) to make head or tail (of something). Indeed, the plural version is the AmE version, and the singular the BrE version. (This is backed up by John Algeo in British or American English. He found only the singular in BrE texts in his corpus, and only plural in AmE texts.)

I suppose the reason I didn't write about that earlier is because there's not a lot more to say about it! It's unclear why the AmE version gained the plural markers. The phrase head or tail is defined by the OED as 'one thing or another', so etymologically speaking, the singular makes some sense. Growing up with the AmE version, I visuali{s/z}ed the things that one 'could not make heads or tails of' to be chaotic things--sort of like a Breughel painting as done by Jackson Pollock, where you wouldn't be able to find the heads or the tails of the beings in it. The BrE version lends it self to a visual that is imprecise, but not necessarily chaotic. But then, how one pictures such things must be a highly individual experience...

25 comments:

Roger said...

I (Canadian) always thought the plural version had to do with coins. It'd be hard to tell heads from tails on a really scuffed-up coin.

Also, both versions, singular and plural, sound OK to my ear(s), but the singular sounds more highfalutin, or more British, which might be the same thing in my education.

Ailsa said...

Huh. I grew up in New England (Maine, to be precise), and I learned it as "can't make head nor tail of it."

zhoen said...

All over Am/E, with Canadian parents, I too always assumed it referred to coins.

Bingley said...

I grew up in SE England and agree with Ailsa: "can't/couldn't make head nor tail".

Runway said...

I, too, (as a Texan) heard it as "heads or tales" and assumed it had to do with old, rustic coins. To hear someone say they can't make heads or tales out of something just meant they couldn't figure it/understand it just like they couldn't figure out which side of a rustic coin was heads or tails.

But... do we say, "this is the head side of the coin" or "this is the heads side of the coin." Maybe it's the "head's side," the side belonging to the head. That's why it sounds weird in singular (or, I guess, the non possessive) form - to me anyway.

runway said...

Tails. I should reread before I post.

Ken Broadhurst said...

My North Carolina dialect says "can't make heads (n)or tails" of it.

There's a similar expression in French and it has nothing to do with coins. It says that a confusing story or explanation is "sans queue ni tête" -- without head nor tail. Queue and tête are not the terms used to describe the two sides of a coin. An equivalent expression is "without rhyme or reason."

Ginger Yellow said...

Definitely 'nor' in preference to 'or'.

Andy said...

Growing up in Northern England, I learned this as "can't make head or tails of it"... apparantly a mixture of the two styles.

lynneguist said...

The 'nor' variation may exist within people, and may depend in part on the larger grammatical context. In general, it's less common than 'or'. The following Google figures are from the original e-mail that was sent to me by my colleague:

> 99,000 for "make head or tail" (35,900 for "make head nor tail")
> 193,000 for "make heads or tails" (12,900 for "make heads nor tails")

jhm said...

I (from Western Massachusetts) would say "heads or tails," but have heard (or read) allsa's Maine version, and don't think of it as wrong.

In fact, the singular version makes much more sense as something akin to 'I don't know where to start/which end is which,' the latter forming my main visualization for the plural version (also using coins) 'can't tell up from down/obverse from reverse.'

Anonymous said...

Lynne, do you know whether the phrase originally had to do with coins? Or is the smimilarity just coincidental?

Doug Sundseth said...

When calling a flipped coin, I (AmE) would always use the plural:

"Call it in the air!"

"Heads."

"Heads it is."

I've heard much the same during televised coin flips many times, so I don't think this a particularly idiosyncratic form of AmE.

Would that sequence in BrE use the singular?

Cameron said...

Doug, coin TOSSING (BrE) is not yet a televised sport over here (and I must say I don't see the spectator potential) but on any coin toss it would indeed be "heads or tails," not the singular version. But in the expression Lynne is writing about-- to be a good boy and drag it back on topic-- I, brought up in Scotland but having lived in England and Germany, know it as "I can't make head nor tail of it," NEVER in plural.

Anonymous said...

I guess one question is whether when flipping a coin speakers of BrE say "Head or Tail" or "Heads or Tails"...that will determine what sort of head we are talking about...

Anonymous said...

So it looks like the difference comes from a view of the phrase itself. In AmE, the phrase referrs to not being able to tell the difference between two sides of a coin, whereas in BrE it is about not knowing the difference between the two sides of an animal...Kind of like not knowing your ass from a hole in the ground...

Ginger Yellow said...

I certainly wouldn't link it (the singular version) to a coin toss, but interestingly enough Brewer's seems to:

"I can make neither head nor tail of it. I cannot understand it at all. A gambling phrase"

flatlander said...

As I'm sure cameron and others are dying to know, I'll clarify doug's comment. Televised coin tosses are not programs unto themselves (although they would be more entertaining than some of the garbage on TV), but rather a way of deciding which (American-style) football team kicks off to start the first half. I believe the visiting team calls "heads or tails" in the air. Winner decides whether to kick or to receive first.

And -- to get back on topic -- I've always used the plural. I picture a catfight where the feline heads and tails are mixed up with claws and fur and spit and dust.

Erin said...

It seems like the American version was influenced by the coin-related meanings of "head" and "tail" while the British version wasn't. We can back-interpret the etymology so that it relates to coins, and of course that interpretation makes sense, but it's likely that the original meaning referred to separating the head of an animal from its rear end.

lynneguist said...

I don't know what the origin of the phrase is, I'm afraid. The OED considers it to have derived from head or tail to mean 'one thing or another', which goes back at least to 1651. Now that meaning is always in the phrase "not make head(s) (n)or tail(s) of", but the first quotation for that actual phrase is 1729. None of that helps us know whether it's about animals or coins, since the sense of head and tail relating to coins goes back into the 17th century too.

So, we don't know. And it could be the case that when the phrase was populari{s/z}ed, there were people then just as today who had different ideas about the underlying metaphor!

johnb said...

It appears to me, as a BrE speaker that we have two different phrases here. 'Heads or tails' as a choice between two sides of a coin. And 'I can't make head nor tail of it'. I have never considered the two phrases to be related.

In my experience, the 'I can't make head nor tail of it' always comes with the rest of the words around the outside. I can't think of any other context for that version of 'head nor tail'.

The coin version - also appears to be a stand alone phrase - never heard it applied to anything else.

There is no reason that the two different usages need to be linked at all.

And as for the folk netymology - its always amusing to see it develop. It is generally wrong of course. :)

Sili said...

Danish reference to head or tail (sg) is also unrelated to coins (the process it called "at slå plat og krone" - with and rather than or come to think of it).

The expression of bafflement is "ikke at kunne finde hoved eller hale it i noget".

Checking my dictionary (which only has sparing etymology) makes me wonder if this use is borrowed from English, because their quoted example is "Der var hverken hoved eller hale på historien" - There was neither head nor tail to the story. A far more literal interpretation.

Sili said...

Correcting myself - I think we *do* use or rather than and with cointosses. I should pay more attention ...

Checking the Danish equivalent of The Oxford Dictionary of the English Language (which is now freely available online for those curious) the expression unambiguously refers to beginning and end (like alpha and omega). E.g. Deut 28.13: "And the LORD shall make thee the head, and not the tail; and thou shalt be above only, and thou shalt not be beneath; if that thou hearken unto the commandments of the LORD thy God, which I command thee this day, to observe and to do them:" (KJV since there may be some age to it).

Stephen UK said...

Heads or Tails is a coin-tossing game. Most coins have a side where the imprint of a person's head, such as a current or former head of state, is impressed — this side is called the "heads" side. The other side is called the "tails" side, irrespective of its design. Technically, the heads and tails sides are known as the obverse and reverse, respectively.

In 1870 Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable describes heads in a similar way and details tails as being the opposite and obvious reverse to heads. The expression 'can't make head nor tail of it' expresses this concept of opposites. Singular 'head nor tail' is the correct English form.

Plural "Heads or Tails" refers to the actual call during the tossing of a coin.
Generally, one person throws the coin up in the air, and the second person must predict which side of the coin will lay face up after it rests back on the ground. A correct prediction results in a win. Another variation has the person catch the coin in one hand and slap it on the back of their other hand. Traditionally, the second person calls out "heads" or "tails" while the coin is in the air.

Anonymous said...

While the meaning of the phrase is clear, it's origin is not so.

I come from an area of the US where moon shining is a popular past time and always thought the phrase "can't make heads or tails" came from the process of separating the heads (first distillate out of a still) from the tails (the last distillate out of the still). The heads and tails are undesirable because they contain chemicals other than pure alcohol.

The separating of heads and tails from a batch is as much art as science and is difficult until mastered.