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My simplistic thinking is that each person has one brain, so why do we say "blow someone's brains out"?

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4 Answers 4

up vote 8 down vote accepted

It's hard to say, since we've been doing it as long as the word has been around. The OED gives: I. Senses denoting organic structures. 1. a. The organ contained in the skull of humans and other vertebrates b. In pl. in the same senses. Now usu. as a mass noun, chiefly in Cookery.

?c1400 tr. Secreta Secret. (Sloane) 11 Many heres and softe signyfies buxomnes and coldnes of brains.

As for the comment about mass noun, note that you don't blow the entire brain out, just bits of it.

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My electronic edition of the OED adds: In 16th c. it became usual to employ the pl. instead of the sing. when mere cerebral substance, and not a definite organic structure, was meant; this usage still continues: we say ‘a dish of brains’, ‘a disease of the brain’. –  Laure Jan 1 '12 at 21:47
    
@Laure, and that's presumably where etymonline (which is, after all, a compiler) got it from. –  msh210 Jan 1 '12 at 21:50
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And also 'sliced brain, diced brain, pureed brain, grilled brain'. The first two imply some larger structure to dissect, the third is the usual massification, and the last one is indeed a whole brain (or integral portion thereof). Massification is the semantic effect of using a count noun in a situation that clearly calls for a mass noun. The classic example is After the explosion, there was scientist all over the lab, where scientist clearly refers to the same kind of structural integrity as brains that get blown out. –  John Lawler Jan 1 '12 at 21:57

I see nothing at all wrong with @Brett Reynolds's excellent answer - I'm only really posting this to graphically illustrate that plural brains has always been as common as brain, even for one individual.

enter image description here

Maybe it's because if you actually look at a brain, it seems to be made of lots of bits (we certainly do the same with guts). Or maybe we think we're so smart the singular doesn't do justice to the organ.

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But his brain beats his brains by 4x. Brains has a different connotation than brain, and is more common in certain contexts than brain (i.e. blow his brains out, use his brains, etc.) –  Daniel Jan 16 '12 at 1:59
    
@Daniel: You got the last link (use his brains) wrong there (it should match even for one individual in my answer). Obviously for his brain to outrank his brains by 4:1 there must be lots of usages that do favour it, but use (also racked and the execrable wracked) all come out about equal. Curiously, taxed is almost always with singular, so I think it's not just a matter of semantics (there's no obvious reason why that particular kind of use should be different to the others). If I find a context that clearly favours the plural, I'll add examples of each to the answer. –  FumbleFingers Jan 16 '12 at 2:19

Beats me, but etymonline notes:

The custom of using the plural to refer to the substance (literal or figurative), as opposed to the organ, dates from [the sixteenth century].

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+1 Because I think it’s really as simple as this. One brain, a splatter of brains. –  Jon Purdy Jan 2 '12 at 2:42

No, you don't "blow someone's brain out" unless you are Bond.

Brain is physiology. Brains is a metaphor. In fact, brains here is a not a plural in the usual sense, but merely signifies that it is a metaphor. It's so with several other words as well.

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