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Word of the day: billhead, plus a roundup of other -head words

Jul 13, 2010 | Etymology, Language

Recently Google sent me a few searchers who wanted to know how to “design my own billhead” or were interested in the “design of bill head.” With narcissistic delusions of my own grandeur I was flattered that someone should want their very own Bill’s Head (note, however, that Bill’s Head is the product of evolution, not of design).

It turns out, though, that a billhead is something altogether different:

A photo of Bill's head, in a jar of green fluid
A Bill’s Head
A fancy billhead receipt, dated 1895
A billhead

The billhead is the predecessor to the more familiar letterhead. It’s simply a sheet of paper with a business name and address (and often a logo of some sort) on the top, and lines where the merchant or tradesman could write in the bill or account information. People collect them now, of course, because people collect everything, in a category called “ephemera.” The American Antiquarian Society has a large collection, but alas does not display many online.

Billhead made me think of hogshead, which is a large cask for containing liquids. Like a buttload, the exact capacity of a hogshead originally varied depending on the type of liquid being held, and on the locale. The quantity did not depend on the size of the local hogs, though: it’s unclear how the head of a hog came to be used this way, but the measurement is not related to the capacity of actual hog heads. The word originated in English and was later adopted in other Germanic languages, becoming “ox-head” in some of them.

The volume of a hogshead was standardized by statute in 1423, but the number still depended on what you were measuring. If you’re measuring wine, for example, it’s 63 gallons, and you need two hogsheads to make a buttload.

From here it did not take long for me to start thinking about defining my very own measure of volume, the “billshead.” To make it easier for future etymologists, I decided that the billshead should have a more straightforward relationship to its namesake than the hogshead does. Ideally it should be the volume of liquid that Bill’s Head could hold if you scooped out everything else that’s in there, but this was going to be infeasibly fatal to measure. So I settled for “the volume of Bill’s Head” (contents intact; i.e., the outer volume), which is much easier to calculate.

Warning label from 5 gallon bucket advising of the danger of children drowning in the bucket
This is exactly what I did!

To make the calculation I filled a bucket with water, all the way to the brim. I wrote a little note to explain what I was doing (for whoever found my body, in case it all went horribly wrong) and stuck my head in the bucket, completely ignoring the warning sticker on the bucket that tells you not to do this. This all turns out to be a little tricky to do on your own, because it’s hard to tell if you’ve got your head in there far enough to get an accurate measurement of your head, without getting too much of the neck. But I think I came close enough. (For those of you obsessively concerned with methodology and accuracy, I’ll note that I don’t have enough hair to absorb much water, but I did hold my head over the bucket after I pulled it out of the water and tried to return all the water that had accumulated on my head and in my ears and nose. Tip if you’re going to try this at home: use nose plugs.)

Once my head was out of the bucket, I measured how far the water level was now below the rim of the bucket, and from that calculated the volume of water that my head had displaced: 5.498 liters, which we’ll round to a more convenient 5.5 liters.

So: a billshead is now officially defined as 5.5 liters.

That’s 5.5 liters of anything you want, mind you: we won’t be using a different definition for each commodity, as is the case with a hogshead.

I have found it surprisingly difficult to assess the accuracy of my measurement or to find out if my head is a normal size: I have not been able to find any credible reference source (after at least 10 minutes of reviewing Google results) that tells me what average volume of a human head is. The only source I found was at WikiAnswers, where the answerer claims to have measured his own head at 4.9 liters using the same method I used. All other sources are focused more on the volume of the brain, or the weight of the head or brain. Attention scientists: I simply do not understand why this information is not more readily available. Someone should get to work on that.

One thing I did find, somewhat strangely, while searching for “average head size” or something like that, was an article from the “Growing up in the Lord: A Study for Teenage Boys” section of the La Vista Church of Christ’s Web site, entitled “How do you measure your testicles?

Finished with billhead, hogshead, and billshead, I went looking for other -head words,[1]The Internet seems to have known I would write this post: I’ve already had visits from searchers looking for “words that end in head.” hoping to find some other units of measure based on heads. I didn’t find any more of those, but I did find a lot more -heads than I expected. There are plenty of the sort that you’d expect, i.e., the head of something, like a railhead or a beachhead. But also a lot of words that aren’t the head of anything. This is because there is (or was, as most of these words are obsolete now) a -head suffix in English that derived from the same root as -hood, and carries the same meaning.

Since I was searching the OED, I turned up all sorts of obsolete Middle English and Scottish[2]I found that if I pronounced a word like childhood to myself in an exaggerated Scottish accent it sounded a lot like childhead, an obsolete variant of the word. words that end with -head in that sense. Some of them survive today with a -hood suffix instead; in others the -head has been replaced with -ness or another suffix conveying the same sense. For example, beastlihead is now beasthood or beastliness; comelihead is now comeliness. Maidenhead survives as a poetic reference to virginity or to the hymen, while maidenhood has adopted a different meaning, referring to the state of being a maiden or young girl.

The obsolescence of many of these words makes them sound poetic. Some of my favorites, which I shall try to revive, are notefulhead (usefulness), firelihead (ardor or eagerness; firely is a sadly obsolete adjective meaning ardent or furious), and clumsthead (mental or moral stupefaction; from clumse, a verb meaning to stupefy, amaze, or daze).

Some familiar -head words have meanings you’re probably not familiar with. For example, an air-head is now a foolish or frivolous person, but long before that was a passage used to carry air from one part of a mine to another, and more recently an airbase that supports a military operation (like a beachhead, but for planes).

And of course I found some words that sound funnier than they are, which you could profitably put to use in your own daily conversations when you need a novel insult.

Like futtock-head, which in shipbuilding is the name for some specific parts of the ship’s frame (the fifth, seventh, and ninth diagonals, specifically). A futtock is one of the curved timbers that forms the ribs of the ship but has the advantage of sounding naughty since it looks like fuck and buttock. (Butt-head, by the way, has a nautical meaning as well, far older than its use as an insult: “The end of a plank or plate in a vessel’s side which joins or butts on to the end of the next.”)

Or crappit-head, a Scottish delicacy consisting of “the head of a haddock stuffed with the roe, oatmeal, suet, and spices.”

Or jerkin-head, and architectural term for “the end of a roof not hipped down to the level of the opposite adjoining walls, the gable being carried higher than the level of those walls.”

And so concludes today’s roundup of -head words, a veritable billshead of them.


1 The Internet seems to have known I would write this post: I’ve already had visits from searchers looking for “words that end in head.”
2 I found that if I pronounced a word like childhood to myself in an exaggerated Scottish accent it sounded a lot like childhead, an obsolete variant of the word.


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