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A Head

Note the definitive article in that title there. This is a list of British slang terms for the cranium, not a list of euphamisms for a sex act, no matter what you may have assumed. I’ve left out the Scots heid, even though it’s distinct enough to be considered an alternate word in its own right, because there’s a whole world of fun to be had with it (not least when talking about being butted in the face) and I want to come back to it another time.

So, noggins at the ready? Let’s start:

1: Bonce
This has it’s origin in the fine game of marbles. There’s a long tradition of giving daft names to the bigger marbles, the ones you play long and hard games in order to win. These names are then bandied around with deadly seriousness. In my day the gradiation of size went singles, doubles (or dobbers), trebles and double-dobbers. In the Arctic Monkeys’ day, the latter became a mecca dobber (it’s referenced as a nod to penis size, possibly more in girth than length, in the song “Florescent Adolescent”). But way back in the 1860s, the biggest marble in the game was called a bonce. And as it’s such a good word, it soon made the leap to describe that other gleaming orb, the human head. I assume it started as a form of mockery for bald men, and then softened in meaning, to include everyone. Let’s hope mecca dobber doesn’t make the same transition. Our fragile male egos could not take it.

2: Nut
A fairly self-explanitory one, this. Brittle shell on the outside, soft tissue within. Heck, the human brain looks more like a walnut than almost anything else in nature, apart from other brains. The Small Faces album title “Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake” being a sneaky pun on the kind of names people give flake tobacco (nutty being a common adjective), and the extreme states of relaxation they often found themselves in after a few too many jazz bifters.

3: Noggin
This one made the transition over to your fair shores, but it deserves inclusion here, not least because of its unique origins. A nog, back in the 1500s, was a small cup or mug. In the 1600s it had changed to become the drink within the cup, specifically an alcoholic drink. This interpretation lives on in the name for that festive cream/nutmeg/heart-attack/rum confection: eggnog. But while nog was still synonymous with nip or swig or dram, one of those drinking nouns which derives from a (made-up) unit of measurement, the term noggin appeared, presumably to describe the woozy head of someone who’s been at the nog again. You can see how “get this through your noggin” could have started out meaning get this through your drunken head, and eventually shifted to get this through your muddled head, and finally get this through your silly head.

Also: In the 1960s the children’s animator Oliver Postgate made a cartoon about a viking called Noggin The Nog. Under no circumstances are you to conclude that he was drawing on any of the information above, otherwise he might as well have gone the whole hog and called him Drunky The Cup.

4: Loaf
Another simple one, derived from the ever-present cockney rhyming slang. Loaf of bread = head. Should you ever annoy a cockney with your foolishness, enough for him or her to bellow “use your loaf!” at least you’ll know what he’s banging on about.

See also: Uncle Ned (which, confusingly, can also mean bed)

5: Eek
OK, a slight cheat at the end. Polari is the slang developed by costermongers, actors, circus folk, romanies and gay men in order to talk openly with their own people, without the wrong people having the first clue what they were on about. In the face of extreme penalties, before the legalisation of homosexuality in 1967, it became a survival code for gay men. It is every bit as complex and inspired as cockney rhyming slang, but far less celebrated. And while there’s not a readily useable polari term for head (no jokes, keep it clean), there are two for face. There’s ecaf (which is just face backwards), and that got shortened into eek.

Of course, they’re not particularly widely used any more, but rather marvellous for all that.


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Filed Under: Fraser's Phrases
By Fraser McAlpine