Shouldn’t the expression “head over heels” be “heels over head”?

SHARE Shouldn’t the expression “head over heels” be “heels over head”?

Dear Cecil: Ever since I first experienced it, I’ve been wondering about the expression “head over heels in love.” Most people understand this to mean being flipped out with passion. But if that’s so, shouldn’t it be “heels over head”? “Head over heels” is the way most of us spend at least two thirds of our lives. The British say “head over ears,” which makes just as little sense. Any insights into the origin and meaning of these idiotic idioms would be appreciated. Daniel Z., Chicago


Illustration by Slug Signorino

Cecil replies:

Well, now you see why they’re called idioms. “Head over heels” is a corruption of “heels over head,” which dates back to the 14th century. The British “head over ears,” meanwhile, is a corruption of “over head and ears,” in over one’s head, deeply. The corrupted versions started appearing in the 18th and 19th centuries and have now largely supplanted the originals. But don’t despair. Years ago one often heard the equally nonsensical expression “cheap at half the price.” Amazingly enough, years of ridicule by word mavens have largely succeeded in stamping out this barbarism in favor of the more sensible “cheap at twice the price” — a welcome if unexpected victory. Maybe “head over heels” will meet the same fate.

Cecil Adams

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