Idiom to be at loggerheads with someone over sth

The meaning is to be in strong disagreement with someone struggling constantly as in

  • The two governments are still at loggerheads over the island.

What might be behind this idiom? Etymonline is uncertain and the comment is not very convincing.


Supplement: to be at loggerheads

My idea ( a hypothesis) is that "loggerheads" was "lock their heads". Two constantly quarrelling neighbours can be compared to stags in rutting season running into each other with fury. An expression like "They are at the stage of stags that lock their heads" may have been shortened and a bit transformed to "at loggerheads". We have expressions such as

  • to lock horns

  • to be locked in battle/in discussions.

The already existing word loggerhead (various meanings) may have had an influence in the transformation from ○locktheirheads to loggerheads but I don't think that loggerhead, a tool for melting pitch or a fool, is really the origin for a saying expressing the idea of constant quarrelling.

  • 1
    The full OED have no qualms in attributing it to logger - a heavy block of wood fastened to the leg of a horse to prevent it straying (which same origin etymonline acknowledge as "possible"). It makes sense to me (especially bearing in mind related blockhead). Perhaps etymonline are bothered by the fact that Shakespeare was using "loggerhead" back in 1598 (and OED have another citation 3 years earlier), whereas that sense of "logger" wasn't recorded until 1777. Mar 10, 2015 at 3:32
  • 1
    ... but precisely how we got from the original loggerhead to the surviving idiomatic usage is indeed unclear. OED tentatively suggest perhaps via a usage first recorded in 1687: loggerhead an iron instrument with a long handle and a ball or bulb at the end used, when heated in the fire, for melting pitch and for heating liquids. But I find it easier to just think in terms of "clashing heads" (like rutting goats or deer). Mar 10, 2015 at 3:40

4 Answers 4


Loggerhead was an established term for blockhead by 1600. Shakespeare uses loggerhead or loggerheaded four times in his plays. From The Taming of the Shrew (by 1592):

Petruchio. Here, sir! here, sir! here, sir! here sir!/You logger-headed and unpolish'd grooms!/What, no attendance? no regard? no duty?/Where is the foolish knave I sent before?

From Romeo and Juliet (by 1595):

Capulet. Make haste, make haste. [Exit 1 Serv.]—Sirrah, fetch drier logs;/Call Peter, he will show thee where they are.

2 Servant. I have a head, sir, that will find out logs,/And never trouble Peter for the matter. [Exit.

Capulet. 'Mass and well said; A merry whoreson! ha,/Thou shalt be logger-head. — Good faith, 'tis day:

From Love's Labour's Lost (mid-1590s):

Biron. [To Costard] Ah, you whoreson loggerhead! you were born to do me shame.

From Henry IV, Part 1 (1597):

Poins. Where hast been, Hal?

Prince Henry. With three or four loggerheads, amongst three or four score hogsheads.

Earlier still is the term log-headed. From Richard Edwards, Damon and Pythias (1564):

Aristippus. ... What crying out, what cursing is there within of Carisophus,/Because he accused Damon to King Dionysius!/Even now he came whining and crying into the court for the nonce,/Showing that one Onaphets had broke his knave's sconce./Which strange name when they heard, every man laughed heartily,/And I by myself scanned his name secretly;/For well I knew it was some mad-headed child/That invented this name, that the log-headed knave might be beguiled.

The notion of being "at loggerheads" was earlier expressed in the phrases "to come to loggerheads" or "to fall to loggerheads." The first instance of this phrase, according to John Farmer & W.E. Henley, Slang and Its Analogues, volume 4 (1896)‚ which is the source of many of my references here—is from Charles Cotton, Scarronnides, Or, Virgil Travestie (by 1670):

The first place after this vagary/He lighted on was Dido's Dairy;/Whence he Æneas soon did spie,/Ord'ring his Highness Husbandry:/He took upon him as her Spouse,/And vapour'd like the Man o' th' House;/For all that time, as't came to pass,/In Quarrell high engag'd he was,/And ready in hi fumigation,/(As Histories do make relation)/To fall to Logger-heads, as't appears,/With a few sawcy Carpenters,/Who building were an House of Ease,/For Dido in necessities,/They would not follow his advice,/(As workmen still are overwise)/Which made him foam, and flirt out spittle,/Because they made the holes too little.

Abel Boyer, Dictionaire Royal: Anglois–Francois, volume 2 (1722) has this brief note about "to fall to loggerheads":

To fall to Loggerheads, (to go together by the Ears, to Fight)

And a number of subsequent dictionaries, including William Perry, The Synonymous, Etymological, and Pronouncing English Dictionary (1805), give this version:

To go or fall to loggerheads, to scuffle, to fight without weapons.

The first instance of "at loggerheads" that Farmer & Henley identifies is from an 1846 issue of [Punch]:

'F. M. the Duke of Wellington will let Mr. Punch have the earliest intimation of anything definite being come to.' As we have not heard from his grace. ... we can only presume that the ministers were up to the last moment at loggerheads.

The phrase also arises in Anne Baker, Glossary of Northamptonshire Words and Phrases (1854):

LOGGERGEAD. A blockhead. [Quotation from George Farquhar, Sir Henry Wildair (1701), omitted]

  1. When relatives are disagreeing over property or other things, it is frequently said "they are all at loggerheads together." [A different quotation from Farquhar, Sir Henry Wildair, again omitted; it involves the phrase "fall to loggerheads," not "at loggerheads."]
  • 1+ for the interesting material.
    – rogermue
    Mar 12, 2015 at 3:12

Its meaning appears to derive from the name of a few tools that were also used as weapons during very strong disputes.

The idiom at loggerheads,

  • which usually functions as a predicate adjective, means in a dispute. Its origins are mysterious. Loggerhead originally referred to a stupid person, and in the 17th century it took a new definition—thick-headed iron tool. When at loggerheads came about soon thereafter, it may have referred to the use of loggerheads as weapons in fights. In any case, at loggerheads (loggerheads is always plural in the idiom) now implies harsh disagreement but not necessarily violence. (The Grammarist)

The Phrase Finder:

  • 'At loggerheads' is of UK origin. The singular 'loggerhead' occurs as a name in several contexts - as a species of turtle, a bird and as a place name. Originally, a loggerhead was none of these but was used with the meaning of 'a stupid person - a blockhead'. Shakespeare used it that way in Love's Labours Lost, 1588:

    • "Ah you whoreson logger-head, you were borne to doe me shame."
  • A 'logger-head' was literally a 'block-head'. *A logger was a thick block of timber which was fastened to a horse's leg to prevent it from running away.** In the 17th century, a loggerhead was also recorded as 'an iron instrument with a long handle used for melting pitch and for heating liquids'. It is likely that the use of these tools as weapons was what was being referred to when rivals were first said to be 'at loggerheads'.

  • The first known use of the phrase in print is in Francis Kirkman's, The English Rogue, 1680:

    • "They frequently quarrell'd about their Sicilian wenches, and indeed... they seem... to be worth the going to Logger-heads for."
  • The next year saw the printing of The Arraignment, Trial, and Condemnation of Stephen Colledge. In that text the author makes a clear link between loggerheads and fighting.

    • 'Loggerheads' is also the name of three small towns in the UK - in Staffordshire, in Lancashire and in Mold, North Wales. As is 'de rigueur' when a town might have reason to claim to be associated with some phrase or another, each town's residents claim that 'at loggerheads' originated in their home-town. Alas, despite the early citations referring to 'going to' loggerheads, this isn't the case. The towns were named after the term, not the other way about. Nevertheless, the use of 'loggerheads' as a place name has been a boon to stand-up comedians of the 'take my wife...' fraternity. They have been trotting out this classic for years:

    • 'I'm going on holiday - a fortnight at Loggerheads with the wife'.


After some research, I firmly believe that the term 'to be at loggerheads' has its origins in the Welsh language and it came about during the peace that prevailed after the battle of Shrewsbury in 1403. Up until then there had been centuries of conflict between Wales (Cymru) and England (Lloegr).

The emblem of Shrewsbury is colloquially named the Loggerheads and I believe that this colloquial use is derived from the Welsh Y Baner Lloegr Hedd which means The English Flag of Peace. The first part of loggerheds is Lloegr (England) and the suffix is Hedd (peace).

There are two communities called Loggerheads near the border, one in Wales and one in England. Shrewsbury was central to the Welsh wool trade and both languages would have been used in markets, taverns and public spaces. I would expect that the trading and the general deal making in the medieval streets and markets would lead to arguments and they would then be at Loggerheads. I can imagine that the Shrewsbury emblem was symbolic of the peace and a place where people from both countries could barter and trade in peace using both Cymraeg and English.

The actual position of the border between England and Wales was not settled until 1535 and there would have been arguments about the position of border the English and the Welsh would have been at Loggerheads, both physically and geographically.

The people of Shrewsbury still to this day call their flag the Loggerheads and I believe that this is the true etymology for the term when used in this particular context and I believe this is where the idiom 'to be at loggerheads' is originated - on the North Wales border where the two languages overlap.


The term originates from the transportation of timber via rivers:

Log driving

The main problem is if the logs get drawn together and form a block in the river, thus causing all the other logs to jam up behind them. This would be more likely at certain places on a river, such as a bend. This scenario is envisaged as 'coming to loggerheads', either as the logs jammed, or they approach a 'loggerhead'.

As my previous paragraph hints, this is called a 'log jam', and here is a picture showing one:

log jam

The logs have blocked because the river narrows, and this place is called, in lumberjack lingo, a loggerhead.

  • What you describe is a logjam and a logger is a woodcutter, but I doubt that log (of a tree) or logjam or logger has anything to do with an idiom having the meaning of quarrel. I doubt that log in loggerheads was originally log. I think it was something else that later was transformed in log.
    – rogermue
    Mar 10, 2015 at 4:14
  • its because when many logs come together they form a logjam, a bit like a quarrel in that no-one really wins. The phrase 'loggerheads' therefore describes several arguments (logs) coming together at an immutable junction (loggerhead)
    – JMP
    Mar 10, 2015 at 4:16
  • I don't see a convincing connection between jammed logs in a river and quarrel. Neither can I see such a connection in OED's logger for horses. That is fanciful bending words in a desired direction.
    – rogermue
    Mar 10, 2015 at 4:37
  • its an analogy ('xcuse the pun)
    – JMP
    Mar 10, 2015 at 4:41

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