I was reading the Green Mile by Stephen King and when John Coffey shook his head in answer to questions it was implied that the word "nod" referred to the lowering and raising of his head in affirmation and the moving of his head side to side is negatory. Is this correct in usual speech? I thought to shake ones head was ambiguous and could mean "yes" or "no"?


Head movements vary in their meaning depending on the culture in question. In general, in countries where English is the native language, a "nod" (not a "node") is an up and down movement of the head meaning "yes." A head shake is a side to side movement meaning "no." At least for most English speakers in Britain and America, a nod never means no, and a shake never means yes. This is somewhat oversimplified and variations exist, but for the most part, the basic pattern is as I have stated it.

  • I always thought that the shake means no because it is the movement of a child's head when the child does not want to be fed. – Avrohom Yitzchok Aug 25 '13 at 11:18
  • +1 And nodding is sometimes referred to as bobbing ones head, also meaning yes. – bib Aug 25 '13 at 15:29
  • 2
    Your “A head shake is a side to side movement meaning 'no'” sentence is ambiguous; the head waggle (side to side movement of the top of the head, with eyes facing forward) used in southern India for yes (or, at least, not no; sometimes it's maybe) also is a side to side movement. The Englishy head shake that means no is a side to side head movement where the eyes move in a horizontal arc. – James Waldby - jwpat7 Aug 25 '13 at 15:43
  • @jwpat7’s point is an important addition, since (perhaps especially in the US?), the head waggle does not mean ‘no’ (unlike the head shake, which does), but can be used together with both ‘yes’ and ‘no’ answers. It does not indicate the answer itself, but rather that you are reflecting on what your answer will be. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Aug 25 '13 at 19:34
  • @jwpat7 The details of these movements can be elusive in description, and the exact terms never do a great job of encompassing the totality of the movement. "Shake," however, is the standard term for the movement we use in the U.S. for the head movement we use to indicate "no," and so in that sense, my statement is not ambiguous at all. Note, however, that my answer includes numerous qualifications. I state that my answer is oversimplified, variations exist, and that my description works for most people in Britain and the U.S. I don't think anyone could take it as gospel for every human. – John M. Landsberg Aug 27 '13 at 6:24

I would agree with the response that indicated that a "nod" or movement of head up and down means "yes" in most English speaking cultures and a "shake"; side to side movement of head indicates "no." However, there appears to be regional differences in the US. While I grew up in the Northeast, I also lived in the South; and there I often heard the expression "shake your head 'yes' if you agree". But in those instances the person would be meaning what I would call "nod" the head; as in up and down. One in the South would also say, "Shake your head 'no'"; meaning move the head from side to side. So, there appears to be a different interpretation of "shake your head" regionally.


In British English nod means yes. One would write she nodded her head... without any mention of yes. Likewise a shake means no and the work no is not written

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.