June 12, 2004

At loggerheads

In one post about the G8 summit at Sea Island, Abnu at Wordlab comments first about Bush and Chirac being "at loggerheads", and second about summit-related efforts to preserve loggerhead sea turtles by letting schoolchildren from around the world propose names for individual animals to be tagged with GPS devices.

Loggerhead is one of those complex words that seem to work pretty well, despite being at best quasi-compositional in today's English. For most of my life, I've perceived it as a compound like bridegroom or bell hop, whose pieces fit together by allusion rather than by systematic composition. The only living meaning of logger -- someone who cuts down trees -- seems irrelevant except as a dimly resonant association, and the connection with head is almost equally obscure. According to the OED, logger means "a. A heavy block of wood fastened to the leg of a horse to prevent it straying ... b. Lumps of dirt on a ploughboy's feet ... [or] c. ‘Meat which is sinewy, skinny, lumpy, “chunky”, or not worth cooking’, and is " [apparently] a word invented as expressing by its sound the notion of something heavy and clumsy", but I didn't know any of that until I looked it up just now, and I doubt that many readers did either.

Relevant meanings of the compound form loggerhead, as given in the OED, include

1. a. A thick-headed or stupid person; a blockhead.
2. a. A head out of proportion to the body; a large or ‘thick’ head.
3. a. An iron instrument with a long handle and a ball or bulb at the end used, when heated in the fire, for melting pitch and for heating liquids.
4. a. ‘An upright rounded piece of wood, near the stern of a whale-boat, for catching a turn of the line to’
6. As the popular name of various heavy-headed animals. a. (Also loggerhead turtle, tortoise.) A species of turtle, Thalassochelys caretta.
8. pl. in various phrases. to fall, get, go to loggerheads: to come to blows. to be at loggerheads: to be contending about differences of opinion; also, rarely, to come to loggerheads.
[The use is of obscure origin; perh. the instrument described in 3, or something similar, may have been used as a weapon.]

Of these meanings, the only ones that I've encountered in common use are the turtle name and the idiom "at loggerheads". Given how little explicit metaphorical support the idiom has, it's interesting that it survives so well.

The earliest citation for any of the senses of loggerhead is Shakespeare with the S-word version:

1588 SHAKES. L.L.L. IV. iii. 204 Ah you whoreson logger~head, you were borne to doe me shame.

The turtle is almost three quarters of a century behind:

1657 R. LIGON Barbadoes (1673) 4 The Loggerhead Turtle.
1697 W. DAMPIER Voy. (1729) I. 103 There are 4 sorts of sea turtle... The Loggerhead is so call'd, because it hath a great head.

and the various idioms for fighting or contention just a couple of decades after that. The first citation for the "at loggerheads" version is from 1831, and the idiom doesn't seem to settle firmly into that form until the 20th century:

1680 KIRKMAN Eng. Rogue IV. i. 6 They frequently quarrell'd about their Sicilian wenches, and indeed..they seem..to be worth the going to Logger-heads for.
Trial of S. Colledge 49 So we went to loggerheads together, I think that was the word, or Fisty-cuffs.
SMOLLETT Quix. (1803) I. 66 The others..went to
loggerheads with Sancho, whom they soon overthrew.
JEFFERSON Writ. (1830) IV. 63 In order to destroy one member of the administration, the whole were to be set to
J. W. CROKER in C. Papers 25 Jan., I hear from London that our successors are at loggerheads.
FRITH Autobiog. I. xxiv. 347 The Lord Chancellor..and the Bishop came to loggerheads in the House of Lords.
Bull. Atomic Sci. Mar. 90/3 Uranium men and oil and gas producers had long been at
loggerheads due to the fact these natural substances frequently occur on the same site, though at different horizons.
Times 19 May 4/2 The jury would not have much difficulty in getting rid of that suggestion, because those two were obviously at
J. GARDNER Killer for Song i. 13 ‘James, it's good to see you.’ His expression was at loggerheads with the words.

Speaking for myself, I learned only a few years ago that loggerheads were "iron instruments with long handles and balls or bulbs at the end", and then realized that being "at loggerheads" might involve a metaphorical reference to fist-fighting -- arms being the handles and fists being the balls or bulbs at the end. The occasion was reading in Patrick O'Brian's The Commodore: "...They had been sparring, in a spirit of fun, with loggerheads, those massy iron balls with long handles to be carried red-hot from the fire and plunged into buckets of tar or pitch so that the substance might be melted with no risk of flame. 'They are sober now, sir; and penitent, the creatures.'" [This is one of the terms covered at Gibbons Burke's page Nautical Expressions in the Vernacular].

Before reading O'Brian, I always thought of "being at loggerheads" as a relatively immobile sort of head-to-head grappling, sort of like two turtles pushing against one another, or two logs bumping ends, though I had never formulated the idea consciously.

[Update: abnu at Wordlab adds a reference to a variant form of the word:

In his otherwise thorough analysis, the linguist did not comment on the variation of loggerhead in the southern dialect, lager head, which was probably as descriptive of the Sea Island Summit delegates as the turtles.

Harbor Island is a sleepy little oceanfront community that exudes relaxation and rejuvenation. While they do have tennis courts and swimming pools, we prefer sandy beach strolls, chicken-on-a-string crabbing, and watching the lager head sea-turtle hatchlings make their way to the ocean.

This description from " High on Life in South Carolina's Low Country" conjures up images of drunken turtles stumbling across the beach. Isn't language wonderful?

The "lager head" variant was new to me, but I suspect it is more of a sporadic folk etymology (i.e. " eggcorn") than a regional variant. I did manage to confirm Abnu's conjecture about the diplomats attending the conference -- one of the German delegates is shown at the right.

Google has 412 examples of "lager head" and another 1,190 of "lagerhead", nearly all of which are not turtles. Among the 40 or 50 that I checked, references to beer foam and to beer enthusiasts are roughly in balance. However, there are a few other lager-head turtles in the mix:

( link) By the way they should bring that show back. If only to ensure that one hour could pass without an appearance from lager-head turtle lookalike Kenny Chesney. He must have pictures of some high level exec with a goat.
(link) This sterling bracelet is for the lager head turtle enthusiast.
(link)Here is a friendly Lagerhead turtle we came upon and he let us swim and photograph him for awhile!
(link)Samantha and I are counting on the LagerHead Turtle for our livelihood.

When I ask for "lager head", Google's spelling correction algorithm is good enough to ask whether I meant to search for "loggerhead".]

[Update #2: searches for "log ahead turtle", "log or head turtle", "largerhead turtle", "lacquerhead turtle", etc., all come up empty; but one Dutch person has been seduced by "lockerhead turtle":

(link) Het was een enorme lockerhead turtle die een nest ging maken.


[Update 6/14/2004: another theory about the at loggerheads metaphor is found in this entry from John Ciardi's "A Browser's Dictionary" (1980), sent in by Jerry Kreuscher:

logger: 1. In Brit. dial. of unknown origin. A wooden Block. A chopping block. A knob. [Perh. ult. < log, but ??] 2. Am. whaling. A snubbing post built into the bow of a whaleboat. The line attached to a harpooned whale was coiled around the logger. [This usage also suggesting a poss. derivation from log.] loggerhead A knob head. A blockhead. [The root ref. is to a knob on the end of a stick. And so in the names of various animals with unusually large heads, as the loggerhead turtle.]
at loggerheads In hot dispute at close quarters, as if bumping heads. By ext. In hot argument, giving it to one another head to head and verbal scald for verbal scald. [A long-handled large iron ladle for pouring melted tar and molten was earlier called a loggerhead. In naval engagements up to early XVII, ships often grappled while sailors used such loggerheads for scalding the enemy with tar, oil, or water that had been brought to a boil in caldrons set up on deck in brick-and-sand pits. The galleass of the XV and XVI in the Mediterranean, with its very high sheer, was esp. well designed for such warm outpourings upon lower-lying vessels. See galleywest.]


Posted by Mark Liberman at June 12, 2004 05:26 PM