What does the idiom "make head nor tail of" mean?

The phrase make head nor tail of is often used in English, but what does this idiom mean? When idioms are used in the right situations, they strengthen communication and enrich the language. You can communicate more effectively by learning the meaning of make head nor tail of.

Meaning of "make head nor tail of"

Meaning

The idiom 'make head nor tail of' is used to describe an inability to understand or make sense of something. When someone says they can't make head nor tail of something, it means they can't comprehend or process the information they were presented with.

Etymology

The idiom 'make head nor tail of' is thought to have originated in the late 1500s when it was first recorded in print. It is believed to have derived from the phrase 'neither head nor tail', which was used in the Middle Ages to describe an argument with no clear beginning or end.

The idiom also refers to the terms ‘head’ and ‘tail’ being used to describe the top and bottom parts of coins. This is because, over time, coins have come to feature elaborate designs, making it difficult to tell which side is the ‘head’ and which is the ‘tail’. Thus, the phrase ‘make head nor tail of’ came to imply the impossibility of making sense of something.

Usage

This idiom is most commonly used in informal speech, particularly within conversations between friends or family members. It is not often used in formal settings or in written English.

Example Sentences

  • I can’t make head nor tail of your handwriting – can you please rewrite it?
  • I listened to the professor’s lecture, but I couldn’t make head nor tail of what he was talking about.
  • John and Jane had been arguing for hours and I couldn’t make head nor tail of their disagreement.
  • I’m sorry, but I can’t make head nor tail of this maths problem.

The meanings of the words in the "make head nor tail of" idiom

From Shakespeare to Social Media: The Evolution of English Idioms

English idioms have been around for centuries, with many originating from sources like literature, mythology, and everyday life. Shakespeare, for example, coined many phrases that are still used today, such as "break the ice" and "heart of gold." Over time, new idioms have emerged, with social media and popular culture providing rich sources of inspiration. For instance, the phrase "throwing shade" came into use in the 1990s thanks to ball culture, but has since been popularized by social media.

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