Hey, Shouldn’t We Say Heels Over Head?

by Kevin Burton

   Let’s face it, love isn’t usually something you can analyze scientifically. Some of our words and phrases of love don’t make sense either.

   In honor of Valentine’s Day and with the help of Merriam-Webster dictionary, we looked yesterday, at where our love and romance words came from. We continue today with a phrase that should probably be reversed:

Head Over Heels

   “Part of the appeal of this odd adverbial phrase suggesting a somersault is its lack of logic; the head is, after all, normally over the heels. It comes from the somewhat more logical phrase ‘heels over head,’ which is first recorded circa 1400. In time, that phrase gained figurative meaning referring to things becoming ‘topsy-turvy,’ or being turned into a state of confusion or disorder:

   “The variant ‘head over heels’ began to circulate in the 1600s, and it seems to have occurred through an error. Nevertheless, common use has made it acceptable, and it has superseded its predecessor. Besides referring to, in an illogical manner, a somersault or being upside down topsy-turvy, ‘head over heels’ can mean ‘very much,’ ‘deeply,’ or ‘very much or deeply in love.’’”


   “The word heart began pulsating in Old English as the name for the organ in the chest that pumps blood through veins and arteries. In the 16th century, the noun throb began beating. (The verb was already palpitating in the sense of “to pulsate or pound with abnormal force.”) Early uses of the noun include references to spasms of pain (especially in childbirth) or the catching of breath, or even a sigh.

   “The verb senses associated with the heart were heard in the 14th century.  The term heartthrob originally referred, unsurprisingly, to the pulsation of the heart in the 18th century and later to sentimental emotion. In early 20th-century American English, heartthrob named a person or thing that aroused romantic feelings or with whom one was infatuated; nowadays, it is chiefly applied to an attractive and usually young, famous man.”

   “Heart also has an intimate relationship with sweet. Although heart has been openly paired (grammatically, as an open compound) with various other adjectives connoting love (such as dear and darling) since Old English, it began an intimate relationship with sweet, first in hyphenated form and then as a closed compound, as in the pet name sweetheart for a person you love very much, in the 16th century.


   “The lovebird is a species of parrot of Africa and Madagascar that is noted for its pretty colors and its affection towards its mate. Common traits of the bird include a short tail, a diminutive and slightly chunky body, and prominent eye-rings. In the 19th-century, people familiar with the bird and its habits began to use its name for the partners in a loving relationship.”

  —“‘Love nest,’ referring to a place, such as an apartment, for an amorous rendezvous, is an early 20th-century construction.”

Carry a Torch

   “The idiom ‘to carry a torch for someone’ was lit in the early 1900s, and it refers to being in love, especially without reciprocation—that is to say, experiencing unrequited love. The phrase also gave light to torch song and torch singer around the same time.”

   “Torch songs are sad or sentimental songs about love and romance, and their name comes from the metaphor of a flame of love (which also is applied in ‘to carry a torch’) that still burns inside the singer for another whose feeling of love has extinguished.

   “Torch itself was ignited by Latin torqua, meaning “something twisted,” which makes sense since a torch is a stick twisted around an inflammable material at its head to make a flambeauTorqua is also related to torture and torque. It’s true: love can hurt sometimes—and be twisted.


   “The turtledove is a species of a migratory European pigeon that winters in North Africa. Its body is reddish brown; its head, blue-gray; and its tail is marked with a white tip. The use of the term turtle in this pigeon’s name is derived from the echoic sound of its plaintive cooing, which sounds like ‘turr, turr, turr.’ The bird has no association with the shelled reptile.

   “Though not so common nowadays, the bird’s name was applied to people as a term of endearment as early as the 16th century, much like dove and turtle once were.

Shack Up

   “The noun and verb shack are both 19th-century American slang. The noun is suspected to be a back-formation of the dialectal term shackly, meaning “rickety” (as in ‘shackly houses or huts’) and that is now chiefly heard in Southern regions of the United States.”

    “The original sense of the verb is ‘to live in a shack,’ and early uses referred to a group of bachelors or men engaged in some common activity, like fishing or camping, or job, like logging or mining, who live together for a period of time in—well—shacks or small, unglamorous buildings. 

   “The phrase ‘shack up’ is first recorded in the early 20th century. Early uses imply cohabiting with another or just spending the night, say, at your mom’s house. Shack up quickly heated up, however, to the sense of cohabiting with a romantic partner and ‘spending the night’ together in the explicit connotation of the phrase. 

Main Squeeze

  Squeeze has indicated gestures of friendship and affection in the forms of handshakes (or handclasps) and hugs since the 18th century. One’s ‘main squeeze,’ however, was originally one’s boss or any person in charge, and that sense goes back to late 19th-century American slang.

   “By the beginning of the 20th century, people began bragging about their ‘main squeeze’—that is, their primary partner in romance. 

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