2

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?

  • 3
    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
  • 2
    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
  • 1
    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
  • 1
    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
2

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.
  • 1
    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
  • 1
    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
  • 1
    @JohnLawler: the boil in definition (a) is referring to a furuncle, not boiling water. – Ian MacDonald Mar 12 '15 at 15:14

protected by tchrist Aug 5 '17 at 2:55

Thank you for your interest in this question. Because it has attracted low-quality or spam answers that had to be removed, posting an answer now requires 10 reputation on this site (the association bonus does not count).

Would you like to answer one of these unanswered questions instead?

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