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

Idioms are generally defined as groups of words that form a meaningful whole when they come together, even though the words in them do not make sense on their own. They have produced many idioms according to their own cultural characteristics in communities using the English language. What does make head nor tail of mean? In what situations is make head nor tail of used?

Meaning of "make head nor tail of"


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.


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.


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

Idioms with similar meanings in different languages

"Barking up the wrong tree" is an English idiom that means to pursue a mistaken or misguided course of action. In German, the similar idiom is "Auf dem Holzweg sein," which translates to "To be on the wrong track." This idiom emphasizes the idea that when you are pursuing the wrong course of action, you are not going to achieve your desired outcome.


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