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Your Questions About Heels Over Head

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Sharon Your Questions About Heels Over Head

Sharon asks…

Head over heels or Heels over Head?

lizzyrose cropped Your Questions About Heels Over Head

Our pick of the answers:

Head over heels when you’re in love.
Heels over head when you’re dead drunk or just trying to get attention.

Lizzie Your Questions About Heels Over Head

Lizzie asks…

Where does the expression “head over heels” come from? ?

lizzyrose cropped Your Questions About Heels Over Head

Our pick of the answers:

Completely, thoroughly, as in They fell head over heels in love. This expression originated in the 1300s as heels over head and meant literally being upside down. It took its present form in the 1700s and its present meaning in the 1800s.



Emerged in the 14th century as “heels over head”, which is more literally accurate, as “head over heels” is the more standard state of being. “Heels over head” evolved into “head over heels” in common use departing it’s literal meaning, probably for reasons of phrasal elegance.


Head over heels

Excited, and/or turning cartwheels to demonstrate one’s excitement.


‘Head over heels’ is now most often used as part of ‘head over heels in love’. When first coined it wasn’t used that way though and referred exclusively to being temporarily the wrong way up. It is one of many similar phrases that we use to describe things that are not in their usual state – ‘upside-down’, ‘topsy-turvy’, ‘topple up tail’, ‘arse over tea-kettle’, ‘bass-ackwards’ etc.

Herbert Lawrence’s Contemplative Man, 1771 is the first known citation of ‘head over heels’:

“He gave [him] such a violent involuntary kick in the Face, as drove him Head over Heels.”

The first mention of love comes in 1834, by which time the phrase had crossed the Atlantic, and into David Crockett’s Narrative of the life of David Crockett:

“I soon found myself head over heels in love with this girl.”

Note: Non-American readers might not realize that Davy Crockett was a real person. Certainly in the UK he has the semi-mythic status of characters like Robin Hood and William Tell. Crockett is best known here by the old joke: “Did you know Davy Crockett had three ears? A left ear, a right ear and a wild frontier.”

‘Head over heels’ is a good example of how language can communicate meaning even when it makes no literal sense. After all, our head is normally over our heels. The phrase originated in the 14th century as ‘heels over head’, meaning doing a cartwheel or somersault. This appeared later in Thomas Carlyle’s History of Frederick the Great, 1864:

“A total circumgyration, summerset, or tumble heels-over-head in the Political relations of Europe.”

Another note: Carlyle’s spelling of summerset for somersault. John Lennon reinvented that in ‘Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite’ – “Ten somersets he’ll undertake on solid ground.”

‘Head over heels’ isn’t alone – many everyday idioms make no literal sense. Another nice example is ‘putting your best foot forward’. Anyone trying that should arrange to have at least three legs. We humans should limit our efforts to ‘putting our better foot forward’, unless we want to end up ‘heels over head’.


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 somersault.

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”.

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