In the following question OED Appeals: Antedatings of “headhunter” ELU users did a good job finding evidence about early usages of "headhunter" in the recruiting sense.

Etymonline as well as other sources suggest that the current usage is from the '60s, but earlier usages appear to date back to the mid-'40s.

What strikes me is the direct jump from the original meaning of the practice of hunting down and decapitating victims, preserving their heads as trophies to the more urban practice of recruiting.

Though the "macabre" metaphor is quite clear I wonder if there was some intermediate passage in usage of the term headhunter with a different and less violent connotation that lead to its current and more common usage.

The only reference I could find was this entry Green’s Dictionary of Slang which suggests an intermediate usage between the meaning of decapitation and recruitment.

  • [1920s] (US) a person who tracks down wanted criminals.


Is this AmE police slang usage the origin of headhunting meaning recruiting or are there other earlier or later meanings in which the term was used that likely lead to the current sense?

Edit: the supposed duplicate doesn't answer my question. I think the user didn't read all through both posts.


4 Answers 4


The unremitting savagery of commerce and industry, insofar as that savagery does not represent the development or refinement of historical cultural practices, may from time to time get fresh blood and thus fresh impetus, from coincident practices of co-existing cultures. Information about such practices, to include information about headhunting, cannibalism, and other so-called barbarisms, provides the prerequisite for those practices to make their mark upon the language of the culture impressed by them.

So the adoption of 'headhunter' and, more to the point, 'headhunting', for metaphorical use in the US to signify "employee recruiter" and "employee recruiting" was the natural offshoot of widespread dissemination of information about the supposed literal and symbolic significance of the practice in other cultures, followed by the diffusion of that conceptual framework into language in the US. Such abstractions as dissemination and diffusion are, however, ultimately unsatisfying when it comes to picking apart the development of specific terms in language. For more concrete, and thus more satisfying evidence of the processes of linguistic development, the collection of particular uses exampling such development suffices.

In the case of the development of 'headhunter' and 'headhunting' from literal significance to metaphorical use in the sense of "recruiter" and "recruiting", that development was greatly assisted by widespread dissemination, in the US, of information about the original cultural practice. For example, in the late 1800s, it was widely reported in the US that the Dayaks, a headhunting tribe, believed "every person [they] kill in this world will be [their] slave in the next" (Clarion Ledger, Jackson, Mississippi, 4 Oct 1893; paywalled). For people holding such a belief, headhunting would quite literally be considered recruitment — for the afterlife.

The putative religious belief of the Dayaks that by headhunting they recruited slaves, or servants, for their support in the afterlife, was variously reported. For example, in the 8 Oct 1893 Nebraska State Journal (paywalled; emphasis mine) it took this more elaborate form:

The Dyaks, or headhunters, of Borneo, believed in a heaven but had the curious superstition that they would be happy there in proportion to the number of servants they had, and as each man whom they beheaded in this world was bound to them as a slave forever in the next, the head-hunting became a sort of religious frenzy.

Setting aside the close parallel between the Dayak's recruitment of servants for the afterlife by 'headhunting', and corporate recruitment of employees in this life by 'headhunting', the development of metaphorical uses of 'headhunting' illustrates divergent understanding of the term. In one case, 'headhunting' signifies the culling of the labor force. This is attested, for example, by OED's earliest citation (1909) for use of 'headhunting' in the sense of the "action or practice of targeting people for recruitment, now esp. by identifying and approaching highly skilled or experienced personnel already employed elsewhere, and typically carried out by a recruitment agent or agency on an employer's behalf", noted as "orig[inally] U.S.":

1909 Mahoning Disp. (Ohio) 5 Mar. 1/5 The traction company has ceased head hunting. They laid off a lot of good men.

That metaphorical use of 'headhunting' to mean "getting rid of employees" appears much earlier. For example, in the 24 Mar 1885 Democrat and Chronicle (Rochester, New York; paywalled; bold emphasis mine),

 Secretary Manning has begun a thorough investigation into the treasury department routine, with a view to reducing the force and simplifying work.

Another example from the 7 June 1887 issue of the Oakland Tribune (Oakland, California; paywalled; emphasis mine):

But the lobby has a theory, whence derived it is hard to say, that the Council is head hunting, and that early in July the heads will begin to fall, high as some of them now wag.

In the 1890s metaphorical uses of 'headhunting' with the opposite sense, that is, with the meaning of "recruiting" as opposed to "getting rid of", began to appear in political contexts. Examples include this from the 20 May 1891 Salt Lake Tribune (Salt Lake City, Utah; paywalled; bold emphasis mine):

Those persons, Republicans or Democrats, who are negotiating with the Mormon chiefs for the transfer of Mormon votes to the Republican and Democratic parties respectively...admit to themselves...that all THE TRIBUNE has said of the political serfdom in which the masses of the church are held by the church leaders is true. The Saints wait for orders...with the order, any Democrat of them would vote a Republican ticket, or vice versa, or would refuse to vote either. We ask the persons engaged in this head-hunting by proxy to take notice that the way they are going about this work is not the American way....

Another example from the 3 Feb 1899 Sedalia Weekly Democrat (Sedalia, Missouri; paywalled; emphasis mine):

 The democrats in the Missouri general assembly should proceed at once to stop the useless strife in which they are engaged.
 In order to do this it will be necessary to stop some other things.
 For instance, the conservative members of the party should insist that all efforts to build up a personal political machine must cease, and that the schemes to enable one faction to control municipal affairs in the big cities and thus capture the delegations to the state conventions must be defeated.
 And then this "head hunting" must cease, too.

Another example from the 8 Mar 1904 Harrisburg Telegraph (Harrisburg, Pennsylvania; paywalled; emphasis mine):

About this time every year the Democratic factions in Dauphin county go head hunting. They like the sport and as the casualties are confined to their own camp the sanguinary conflict is allowed to proceed without hindrance.

Meanwhile, uses of the 'headhunting' metaphor with the opposite sense continue, as this from the 22 Oct 1905 Evening Star (Washington DC; paywalled; emphasis mine) shows:

The Phillippine civil service is also an expensive one. The principal cuts are being made by the "head-hunting committee" in this direction.

The constant drumbeat behind all the metaphorical uses, and quite evidently inspiring them, is widespread and frequent reporting about the cultural practice of literal headhunting, and ongoing efforts to eradicate that practice. In the early 1900s, however, before, during and after the 1904 St. Louis World Fair, frequent and widespread reporting on a particular touring exhibition of a headhunter village, complete with real live headhunters, began to dominate among those reports. A representative advertisement was commonly accompanied by an 'informative' article:

head hunter village ad, 1905

Soon, apologists for, or at least equivocators of, headhunting begin to appear in the popular news. This is a specimen from the 8 Feb 1906 Globe Republican (Dodge City, Kansas; paywalled; emphasis mine):

Ways of Civilization Likened to Those of Savages
After years of residence among the head hunters of Borneo an Englishwoman writes of them as follows: "I don't want to stand up for head-hunting; it isn't nice. The civilized nations call it murder, and it is murder. But are we to throw stones? Aren't the means we take to satisfy our unquenchable thirst for gain, murder? Tailoring, shirt-making, straw plaiting, lace and box and nailmaking and how many more? Do any of them bear looking into if we want to feel that, as a country, we do not murder? Isn't the whole destruction of body, soul and spirit which drink and gambling and immorality are carrying on hourly at our very doors, and inside many of them, filling our hospitals and lunatic asylums, and graves — isn't that murder? And in our murder are any good qualities necessary. None! But fighting brings out the noblest parts of a savage, and in his home life love and content reign; but civilized murder means misery and discontent and homes turned to hell."

Such apologetics, or equivocations, soon come with hats (ad from the 18 Apr 1906 The Journal Times, Racine, Wisconsin; paywalled):

head hunting 2, 1906

Use of 'headhunting' in the sense of "recruiting" in political contexts continues and, in terms of frequency, accelerates alongside equivocating articles. Here is another, perhaps more persuasive equivocation, from the 24 Apr 1908 Democrat and Chronicle (Rochester, New York; paywalled; emphasis mine):

 A number of scientists are now engaged in a laudable study of the characteristics of the inhabitants of the Philippine Islands, and incidentally, it is understood, a collection of skulls is being made for the Peabody Museum. Their operations have been chiefly confined to Visaya, and the skull-collecting industry is meeting with some adverse criticism.
 Lieutenant-Colonel Hadsell, of the Nineteenth United States Infantry, who has seen service in the Philippines, has raised a question which would appear to be worthy of consideration by the enthusiastic Yale anthropologists who are busy with the skulls of the Visayans. After reminding them that there are many Visayans in the United States, he pictures these curious strangers as making collection of the skulls of New Englanders for the museum of the Visayan College at Cebu, which has existed almost as long as Yale University.
 Colonel Hadsell follows the anthropological fad to its legitimate conclusion, and pictures the Visayans as becoming so greatly absorbed in their studies as not to content themselves with bones from New England graveyards, and indulging in the head-hunting proclivities of their more savage fellow islanders.
Head-hunting, not unlike missionary endeavor, is much a matter of the point of view. Obviously, from the standpoint of Yale, it is more pleasant to hunt the heads of Visayans than it would be to have the Visayans hunt the heads of New Englanders.
 ...who shall repress the curiosity of the Visayans regarding the conformation of the New England skull?

It was not, however, only transitional metaphorical uses, in this case uses refering to the recruitment of voters for and by political machinations, that paved the way for the development and adoption of the terms 'head-hunter' and 'head-hunting' in the more contemporary senses of "employee recruiters" and "employee recruiting"; rather it was the entire process of acculturative diffusion accruing from dissemination of information on the putative practices and beliefs of another culture.


The OED section on 'headhunter' lists only two meanings, the literal decapitation meaning and the recruiting meaning.

The earliest reference pre-dates (by a few years) the supposed origin of the recruiting meaning stated by the OP :

1918 Farmer & Settler (Sydney) 1 Mar. 1/4 Mr. Hughes's proposals bring the whole business of recruiting down to the level of market bargaining. The recruiting officer is made a head-hunter.

The next reference is much later :

1943 Hansard Commons (Electronic ed.) 23 Sept. 519 I want to beg him [sc. the Minister of Labour] not to be a ‘body-snatcher’ but to be a ‘headhunter’; I want him to hunt the heads that can utilise to the fullest extent the man-power and woman-power that he has already secured.

  • 1
    @Gio Feel free to use this reference if you can add to it.
    – Nigel J
    Commented Jan 31, 2018 at 17:57

I question your underlying premise that a metaphorical jump from the jungles of Borneo to lower Manhattan is a movement, at least linguistically, from the primitive to the more urbane which would require intermediate stages to be palatable to men in suspenders and wingtips. In fact, appropriating wholesale the violent language of war, slaughter, and conquest is a particular characteristic of Wall Street jargon. Headhunter fits right in.

This jargon, hardly surprising in a hypermasculine, competitive environment, is the subject of Leo Haviland's monograph Word$ on the $treet: Language and the American Dream on Wall Street (2011). The link takes you to a discussion of the language of warfare used on Wall Street. A New Republic article of 2013 demonstrates how the expression beast mode moved quickly from a video game through sports to the world of high finance.

Headhunter might have been attractive to other groups before, but such usages do not proclude the direct adoption in the world of high finance. Its primitiveness and violence make it an almost foregone conclusion that it would find its way there.

  • 1
    I don’t rule out the fact that the jump may have been direct, with the sadomasochistic pleasure of using a strong metaphor. But you are assuming the term was “coined” within the financial community, is that so? Other answers appear to suggest otherwise.
    – user 66974
    Commented Jan 31, 2018 at 19:25
  • 2
    I am saying that priority does not imply origin, especially if you are talking jargon of particular communities. When the business world sought a word for a recruiter for high stakes jobs, headhunter was on offer. Whether earlier groups used the term in a similar metaphoric sense only proves that usage, not necessarily influence.
    – KarlG
    Commented Jan 31, 2018 at 19:50
  • Do you think that the use of headhunter to mean recruiter could be related to the use of headcount to mean the size of the workforce?
    – BoldBen
    Commented Feb 2, 2018 at 5:15

A Google Ngram search of headhunter shows almost no occurrences of the word in print before 1885. Looking through some of the books that comprise the corpus from which the Ngram was derived shows this use of headhunter in The Union Postal Clerk & the Postal Transport Journal, Volume 13, from 1917:

The Headhunter

Second Assistant Postmaster General Otto Praeger is relentlessly pursuing the aged railway mail clerks and summarily dropping them from the service. This is not a new role for Mr. Praeger.

So, headhunter is used here in a sense somewhat apart from hunting heads for trophies and hunting heads for recruitment.

  • I'd argue that the usage of headhunter for the activities Otto is engaged in are a clear metaphorical extension of the "hunting heads for trophies" literal sense. He's look for heads to "chop off" (fire).
    – Dan Bron
    Commented Jan 31, 2018 at 17:29
  • 1
    @DanBron True, but the OP asked, "I wonder if there was some intermediate passage in usage of the term headhunter with a different and less violent connotation that lead to its current and more common usage." I thought that this usage might fit the bill.
    – Gnawme
    Commented Jan 31, 2018 at 17:57
  • You should include both "head hunter" and "head-hunter" in your Google Ngram search. Like many compound words, this one was formerly hyphenated, and may have originated as a two-word phrase. The corpus includes multiple instances of the hyphenated form as far back as the 1810s, and even one from 1800. Most are the violent sense.
    – shoover
    Commented Jan 31, 2018 at 18:01
  • 1
    @Gnawme I understand, but my comment was to solicit some chain of reasoning to let us conclude that there’s a path from “lopping off heads” to “firing incompetent employees” to “recruiting employees”. Otherwise the attestation might be interesting, but doesn’t help construct the bridge OP is asking for.
    – Dan Bron
    Commented Jan 31, 2018 at 18:02

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