When, where, why and how did the term head come to be used to describe quantities of cattle, animals, people, and so on?

  • The use of the word "head" for a person or a cow is closer to metonymy than synecdoche. Synecdoche replaces a person--e.g., "a monarch"--with something associated with (or an attribute of) a person--e.g., "the crown." Thus, "The crown has made his final decision, and there will be no reversal of it." Metonymy, on the other hand, is the use of the name of one object or concept for that of another to which it is related, as “scepter” for “sovereignty,” or “the bottle” for “booze,” or “count heads (or noses)” for “count people.” Synecdoche and metonymy are subtly different. – rhetorician Jul 20 '13 at 15:21
  • @rhetorician: I think you have it backwards: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Synecdoche – siride Jul 21 '13 at 3:59
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    @siride: You could be right. From the same Wikipedia page, however, comes the following: "Synecdoche is closely related to metonymy (the figure of speech in which a term denoting one thing is used to refer to a related thing); indeed, synecdoche is sometimes considered a subclass of metonymy." Rhetorician Robert A. Harris has also said: "Some rhetoricians do not distinguish between metonymy and synecdoche." On balance, in this case I think I'd have to say I'm wrong, and you are right. – rhetorician Jul 21 '13 at 12:24
  • @rhetorician: personally, I like the view that metonymy is the general phenomenon and synecdoche is a special case (also mentioned in the article). But you are right that it is often a tough distinction to maintain. – siride Jul 21 '13 at 14:45
  • @siride: You're right. The word "crown," for example, could function as both metonymy and synecdoche, although the argument could be made that a crown, strictly speaking, is not a "part of" a royal, but merely a symbol of/for a royal; hence it's more metonymic than synecdochic. Tomahtoe, tomaytoe. – rhetorician Jul 21 '13 at 23:25

It's ancient, from Old English (5th to 11th century). OED has

head noun

10. b. An individual animal, esp. a herd animal.
Usually with plural unchanged after a numeral or other quantifier.

OE   Manumission, Bath (Corpus Cambr. 111) in J. Earle Hand-bk. Land-charters (1888) 268   Leofenoð..hæfð geboht hine & his ofspring ut æt Ælfsige..mid fif oran & mid xii heafdon sceapa.

My Old English isn't great, but I believe the last four words of that mean "with twelve head of sheep."

Sense 10a refers to people, and that has a similar citation from St Wulfstan (d. 1095):

OE   Wulfstan Homily: Be Mistlican Gelimpan (Hatton 113) in A. S. Napier Wulfstan (1883) 170   Swa æt heafde peninc, swa æt heorðe peninc, swa æt sulhgange peninc.

As to why individuals should be counted as head, it would appear to follow from heads being easiest to count in a herd or crowd.

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    Andrew, fortunately those references are after 1789, otherwise confusion would be occurred in counting 'people' during the French Revolution, no? – user19148 Jul 20 '13 at 11:19
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    @Carlo_R. No, just count the heads. They don't have to be attached to anything else to count people. – Andrew Leach Jul 20 '13 at 11:35
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    It may be added that this is not only an English thing—it exists in languages found around the world. A few examples: Danish høved ‘individual head of cattle’ is etymologically the same word as hoved ‘head’; in Irish, ceann ‘head’ is used for counting cattle; in Mandarin, the standard measure word for cattle and similar animals is 头 tóu ‘head’; and not least, the word ‘cattle’ itself, like ‘chattel’, comes ultimately from Latin capitale, the adjective corresponding to caput ‘head’. So it is a very common practice. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jul 20 '13 at 11:42
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    (That also means that a phrase like “Among his chattels were four heads of cattle” etymologically means something like “In the throng of his heads were four heads of heads”) – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jul 20 '13 at 11:44

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