Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

Head Over Heels

Posted by Elyse Bruce on August 19, 2013

You may have heard someone you know say he or she is head over heels in love with someone or something. They may be standing right before you making it obvious they are literally head over heels, but what does the idiom mean? What it means is that they are completely enamored with a person or an idea or an item. They may be obsessed or infatuated or engaged or any number of things when it comes to that person, idea or item, but whatever the emotion may be, it’s intense and encompassing. In other words, it has turned the speaker’s world upside down … the opposite of what he or she is used to feeling.

When it comes to love, no one seems immune.  Of course, rumor has it that the bigger they are, the harder they fall!  On April 18, 2008 the New York Daily News ran with a story by feature writer, Nicole Carter, that made the world sit up and take notice of what was going on in Russia. It seemed that Russian President Vladimir Putin, who was divorcing his wife at the time, was involved with an Olympic Gymnast named Alina Kabayeva. As with many scandals that erupt at the most inopportune time, it came with a snappy headling: “Why Vladimir Putin Fell Head Over Heels In Love With Gymnast.”

Considering that the words in love are added to the idiom indicates that there are times when someone can be head over heels and the expression has little (or nothing) to do with love.  As we have all heard, politics makes for strange bedfellows and back on January 25, 1956 the Lewiston Evening Journal shared the news that something odd was going on in the world of American politics. While few details could be pulled from the article entitled, quite simply, “For Nixon” it began with this eye-opener!

For whatever a poll is worth — the California Republicans are head-over-heels for Vice President Richard Nixon if President Eisenhower doesn’t rerun. So says the daily newspaper, Los Angeles Times. If Ike should run, majorities in both parties are for him.

Back in April 1922, Goldwyn Pictures Corporation released a movie to theaters that starred Mabel Normand, Hugh Thompson and Russ Powell. The movie told the story of three men involved in the life of a perky Italian acrobat who has come to America at a theatrical agent’s bidding. Interestingly enough, because the acrobat is such an adorable spitfire, there’s mayhem a plenty, and maybe more than even she expected when she falls for the theatrical agent’s partner. While it’s true this movie is from the silent movies era, the intertitles didn’t detract from the movie that was known as “Head Over Heels.”

The New York Times has always published articles of political interest to a wide cross-section of its readership. It’s a long-held tradition that can be seen in this article dated May 9, 1860 dealing with the American Anti-Slavery Society and it’s 27th anniversary held at the Cooper Institute. Most of the attendees who half-filled the institute were women. The gathering put forth resolutions condemning slavery. When Wendell Phillips stepped up to the podium to speak, he had a great deal to say about the situation including this quote attributed to a Mr. Seward:

Let it be marked that they (the Abolitionists) didn’t know anything, that they were turned head over heels with their passions — couldn’t see an inch beyond their own ignorance and mistakes — were mere boys — madmen — strong-minded men and women, who did not know anything.

When David Crockett wrote his autobiography, “Narrative of the Life of David Crockett of the State of Tennessee” which was published by Carey, Hart & Co. in 1834. As he wrote about his early days as a young man, fond memories surfaced including this one:

The next day, I went back to my old friend, the Quaker, and set in to work for him for some clothes; for I had now worked a year without getting any money at all, and my clothes were nearly all worn out, and what few I had left were mighty indifferent. I worked in this way for about two months; and in that time a young woman from North Carolina, who was the Quaker’s niece, came on a visit to his house. And now I am just getting on a part of my history that I know I never can forget. For though I have heard people talk about hard loving, yet I reckon no poor devil in this world was ever cursed with such hard love as mine has always been, when it came on me. I soon found myself head over heels in love with this girl, whose name the public could make no use of; and I thought that if all the hills about there were pure chink, and all belonged to me, I would give them if I could just talk to her as I wanted to; but I was afraid to begin, for when I would think of saying any thing to her, my heart would begin to flutter like a duck in a puddle; and if I tried to outdo it and speak, it would get right smack up in my throat, and choak me like a cold potatoe.

But he certainly wasn’t the first to use the idiom. In fact, the idiom in years leading up to Davey Crockett’s autobiography was usually intended to mean that an individual had been hit with such force that it toppled him over as evidenced in Herbert Lawrence’s book, “The Contemplative Man, or The History of Christopher Crab, Esq., of North Wales” published by J. Whiston in 1771. Rather than describe a romantic encounter, Herbert Lawrence wrote this:

He gave such a violent involuntary kick in the Face, as drove him Head over Heels.

Oddly enough, an earlier variant of the idiom head over heels appears to be heels over head as seen in the Medieval poem, “Patience” from the 14th century:

ORIGINAL TEXT
He [Jonah] glydez in by þe giles, þur glaymande glette … Ay hele ouer hed hourlande aboute.

TRANSLATION
He [Jonah] passed in by the gills, through sticky slime … All heels over head tumbling about.

In the end, however, the idiom seems to originate in Ancient Rome when Roman poet, Gaius Valerius Catallus (84 – 54 BC) wrote his seventeenth poem in “Catulli carmina.” It reads in part:

quendam municipem meum de tuo volo ponte
ire praecipitem in lutum per caputque pedesque,
verum totius ut lacus putidaeque paludis
lividissima maximeque est profunda vorago.

The passage per caputque pedesque translates to over head and heels. So while the more modern romantic version goes to Davey Crocket in 1834, while the original idiom goes to Catallus

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