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I saw the phrase “Call for sb’s head on a plate” in the following sentence of The New Yorker magazine’s article (January 20) titled “Newt and His Wives,” reporting that Gingrich was in a furor when asked by the moderator, John King, about his second and third wives during the presidential debate in South Carolina in January 19th night.

“I am frankly astounded that Gingrich hasn’t been asked more about his various affairs and divorces—they are legitimate subjects for inquiry when you consider a) how merciless and, obviously, hypocritical he was when, as Speaker of the House, he was calling for Clinton’s head on a plate during Monicagate; and b) how sanctimonious he continues to be on the campaign trail, ranting about the encroachment of secular values into American life.”

I can easily guess that ‘call for sb’s head on a plate’ means “call for sb’s resignation’ here. But I can’t find the heading of either “call for a head on a plate,” or “a head on a plate” in any of the Oxford, Cambridge, or Merriam-Webster online dictionaries.

On the other hand, GoogleNGram registers “head on a plate,” and it indicates that the phrase existed from around mid 1800, but the usage started to be prominent since circ 1930.

Is “call for sb’s head on a plate,” which sounds pretty raw to me, a popular phrase? I wonder if it’s associated with the biblical episode of Salome, Herod’s daughter who demanded the head of John the Baptist after dancing in front of her father in a feast. What is the origin of this phrase?

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3 Answers 3

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Your speculation is correct. The phrase is from the Bible story of the beheading of John the Baptist by Herod in Matthew 14:

But when Herod's birthday came, the daughter of Herodias danced before the company and pleased Herod, so that he promised with an oath to give her whatever she might ask. Prompted by her mother, she said, “Give me the head of John the Baptist here on a platter.”

(According to this site, Salome is an opera by Richard Strauss, and was based on a play written by Oscar Wilde about the death of John the Baptist. The daughter of Herodias is not named in the Bible; information about her comes from the historian Flavius Josephus, who apparently named her.)

Asking for the head of one’s enemy to be presented on a platter has become a phrase denoting a desire for revenge on an enemy.

An Ngram of head on a plate vs head on a platter shows the latter phrase to be much more prevalent. As for either form being a popular idiom, because of its biblical origin, it's a phrase that many people in the US (and perhaps other English-speaking countries) would have no trouble understanding.

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It is still understandable when translated verbatim to other languages since it is a biblical term. Danish: Hans hoved på et fad Dutch: Zijn hoofd op een schaal - seems important to bring it on the equivalent of a platter ;) etc –  mplungjan Jan 21 '12 at 7:50
    
@mplungjan The King James version translates Mt 14:8 as "Give me here John Baptist's head in a charger" which is quite an amusing image. –  Gnawme Jan 21 '12 at 19:14
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Oxford English Dictionary: charger "1. A large plate or flat dish for carrying a large joint of meat; a platter." –  GEdgar Jan 22 '12 at 18:24
    
Brings to mind the head of Frankenstein's monster's head hooked up to a mobile phone charger... –  mplungjan Jan 22 '12 at 19:25
    
@GEdgar Oh, I looked up the term long ago; but when you first read the phrase, you think, "What?" –  Gnawme Jan 22 '12 at 20:39

It is a common usage - from the biblical reference that @Gnawme mentioned - and usually means that a person is not going to take revenge themselves, but feels that others should deal with this person. It is often used to say "this person has clearly broken xxx rules, so yyy should probably act"

In the case highlighted, it was used to indicate that Newt was expecting Clinton to be impeached and brought down. It has an implication of wanting to see someone destroyed, while not intending to actually do anything illegitimate to make it happen.

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The Salome episode, if not the origin of the phrase, certainly "popularized" it. In its original context, it referred to the "execution" (beheading) of John the Baptist, her mother's enemy.

In the Clinton context, it refers to a figurative "beheading." Often, if a king was "brought down" (from power), he was also beheaded (e.g. Charles I or Louis XVI). In this case, it was a call for Clinton to be kicked out of the Presidency (i.e. impeached). The "beheading" part has never been part of the American tradition.

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