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I have used the phrases "This is going to come to a head" or "coming to a head". I think I know what they mean, I think I'm using them correctly.

So...where do these phrases come from? And, ahem, what do they (really) mean?

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    They come from the behavior of pimples. Study them carefully and you will see what it, ahem, really means. – John Lawler Mar 12 '15 at 14:59
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    What @John said. I thought there might be some less "yucky" etymology, but thefreedictionary entry for come/bring to a head really does say These phrases allude to the medical sense of head, the tip of an abscess that is about to burst. – FumbleFingers Mar 12 '15 at 15:07
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    By the way, I should mention that TFD (The Free Dictionary) now has its etymologies linked to the American Heritage Dictionary lists of Proto-Indo-European roots and of Semitic roots. These are the latest versions, now available to all word freaks. Enjoy, – John Lawler Mar 12 '15 at 15:12
  • @FumbleFingers: yeah, I kind of wish I hadn't asked. I'll never use this phrase again. I guess I'll start a question asking for alternatives! – Jeromy French Mar 12 '15 at 15:17
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    You kinda wish you hadn't asked! So do I! I was perfectly happy using this idiom myself for decades, but now I might need to reconsider. Should I look for an even more circumlocutory expression such as erupting, or just "tell it like it is", and start talking about critical situations pustulating? – FumbleFingers Mar 12 '15 at 15:31
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Come to a head: (TFD)

  • Fig. [for a problem] to reach a critical or crucial stage.

Ngram: the expression 'come to a head' seems to be used from the 18th century and appears to refer to the culminating part of boil, a pimple or abscess that is likely to break.

Come to a head: The phrase finder refers to MW:

  • a) the part of a boil, pimple, or abscess at which it is likely to break
  • b) culminating point of action : CRISIS -- events came to a head.
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    The phrase originated as a vulgarity in late latin. A popular guess about why "head" is used is the analogy of lettuce growing from a seed to completion —a head of lettuce. – Ian MacDonald Mar 12 '15 at 15:03
  • @IanMacDonald - Interesting..please provide evidence and make an answer. – user66974 Mar 12 '15 at 15:05
  • So, the reference is not to a pot of boiling water about to spill over? – Jeromy French Mar 12 '15 at 15:05
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    For some people. Pimples are slow, boiling water is too fast. For others the topmost position of anything is its head, and come to a head adds the concept of increasing differentiation between the head and the rest. That's way more semantic similarity than an idiom needs; consider kick the bucket. – John Lawler Mar 12 '15 at 15:06
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    @JohnLawler: the boil in definition (a) is referring to a furuncle, not boiling water. – Ian MacDonald Mar 12 '15 at 15:14

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