loggerhead

When times are festive, sometimes spirits run a bit high: someone says something flip, and things get heated and end up at loggerheads.

Have you ever wondered where that phrase, at loggerheads, came from?

We know, more or less, what it means: an intractable conflict between two dug-in parties. Blockheads butting heads. Perhaps a barstool argument over grammar or etymology getting out of hand as the beer gets out of mug. (Say, should it be at lagerheads? No, it should not; there’s no evidence for that as an origin.)

So OK. What are loggerheads? Once this question was raised by my longtime friend (and reader of these blitherings) Margaret Gibbs, I knew where I wanted to look first: Michael Quinion’s site World Wide Words. And I was not disappointed.

It’s not that he had the exact perfect answer. Actually, no one knows for sure precisely where and in reference to precisely what the phrase was first confected. But the list of suspects is greatly narrowed.

Loggerhead, as the Oxford English Dictionary confirms, is confected from just what you see: logger plus head. In this case, logger appears to be in reference to a block of wood or similar lump, rather than (as we use it now) someone who cuts down trees and moves them to market. A loggerhead has thus, since the late 1500s, been one of two things: a thick-headed person (a blockhead, etc.), or a thing or person with a head out of proportion with the rest – could be a tadpole or similar critter, or could be an instrument made of, for example, a pole with a bulbous end. And, it seems, there is an intractable dispute about which of these the phrase came from. (Well, unresolved, anyway.)

If at loggerheads comes from the first sense, the derivation is straightforward enough: it’s two people being blockheads – pigheaded, in fact. Butting heads.

But if it comes from the second sense, it may well refer to the item that, since the late 1600s, has more often been called a loggerhead: an iron rod with a bulbous head, heated in a fire and used to heat up liquids such as pitch or tar.

Did people get into fights with these? Well, I don’t know. I wasn’t there (so glad about that). But it is true that a loggerhead may even today be involved with a flip utterance. 

You see, there is a beverage called flip; it is made of warmed ale, eggs, sugar, nutmeg and/or ginger, and rum or brandy. The ale is warmed in advance, but when the flip is to be served, it is heated again – by plunging a hot iron implement into it. And, from what I have read, the implement first used for this was a loggerhead.

Which doesn’t really explain how at loggerheads would come from that. Frankly, I prefer the idea it came from the first sense: two people being blockheaded. But I am sure that on many occasions when servings of flip heated by loggerheads were involved (and perhaps still are, in those places where historical reenactment buffs gather), flip utterances led to parties at loggerheads.

One response to “loggerhead

  1. Don’t forget the Loggerhead Turtle, “named for its large head, which supports powerful jaw muscles that enable them to feed on hard-shelled prey, such as whelks and conch.” (source: NOAA Fisheries)

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