Words at Play

7 Idiomatic Body Parts

Hot heads, cold feet, sticky fingers, and more phrases from the body


Definition - having a hot head (as from drinking)

The first use of hotheaded was in the sense in which the word is most often encountered today: "fiery, hasty, impetuous."

And although some hott headed Catholickes Romaine will perhappes praise the Popes zeale in deposing of our Princes, yet must they needes all confesse, that it was done smally for the weale of him, & his friendes here, and therefore done without iudgement and discretion.
— John Bishop, A Courteous Conference with the English Catholikes, 1598

Less often found today, although no less worthy of use, is the sense "having a hot head (as from drinking)."

What a damn'd Chicken-brain'd Fellow am I grown? If I but dip my Bill I am giddy. Now am I as hot-headed with my bare two Bottles, as a drunken Prentice on a Holiday.
— Thomas Otway, Friendship in Fashion, 1678 


Definition - apprehension or doubt strong enough to prevent a planned course of action

The use of cold feet to express apprehension or trepidation is a fairly recent idiom, with little or no use prior to the late 19th century. There is a considerable body of lexical evidence attesting to the use of cold feet prior to this point, but it is entirely literal; one may easily find tens of thousands of instances of the words being used in 19th century newspapers, often in complaining about cold feet (one's own, or those of one's spouse), or advertised cures for cold feet.

The 1909 edition of Merriam-Webster's New International Dictionary of the English Language had another entry for cold feet which has seemingly left our vocabulary: "the condition of plants due to excessive watering without proper drainage."

We have many applications for discharge, some of these coming from men with "cold feet," as the boys express it.
The Burlington Free Press (Burlington, VT), 31 Dec. 1898


Definition - given to stealing, apt to steal 

There are a great number of more formal words which may be used to mean that someone is inclined to thievery: larcenous, thievish, furacious, kleptic, theftuous, and several others. However, while you might not see sticky-fingered used in a court filing, it does have a pleasant and descriptive ring to it.

This being the case, and as Mr. McGraw, mail contractor, has been voted $36,000, and now promises to transport the mail regularly, and as we have proposed to furnish the sticky fingered gentry, between here and Independence, with such periodicals and papers as they are disposed to abstract from the mail bags, on condition of good behavior in future, it is quite possible that Deseretians will be able, for once, to obtain the Eastern papers that they subscribe for.
Deseret News (Salt Lake City, UT), 30 May 1855

At the fire last night, a good many petty thefts were committed—the "sticky fingered" folks no doubt thinking it a good opportunity to lay in their winter stock of groceries.
Daily Ohio Statesman (Columbus, OH), 13 Nov. 1857


Definition - marked by uncertain or ambiguous intent

If language, and the way that we use it, were fair and just, we would have a small number of meanings for left-handed, all of which were concerned with non-judgmental meanings. But such things are not fair at all, and so left-handed has accrued a wide range of senses, many of which have nothing to do with "using the left hand habitually or more easily than the right." Some of the other meanings given to this word over the years are "marked by clumsiness or ineptitude," "exhibiting deviousness or indirection," "given to malevolent scheming or contriving," "of or relating to an illicit or informal liaison," and "marked by uncertain or ambiguous intent."

The last of these senses is the one under which we file left-handed compliment, a turn of phrase which has been in use since the middle of the 18th century.

His Majesty, sensible of the necessity of this union, gave them Concord for a supporter to their arms, that is, to their undertakings; but the directors explain away the intent of this hieroglyphic by their unsteadiness, and therein seem to think, because she is placed on the sinister side, that Concord was intended as a left-handed compliment.
— William Donaldson, The Life and Adventures of Sir Bartholomew Sapskull, Baronet, 1768


Definition - sluggish and obtuse of mind

For the first hundred of so years of its existence thickheaded appears to have been used almost entirely to describe animals (Gervase Markham, in his 1593 book A Discource of Horsemanshippe, wrote of certain equines "which be short neckt, narrowe chauld, thicke headed, and deade mouthed.") By the end of the 17th century, however, it must have been decided to be too useful a word to not apply it people, for it begins to fill this role.

Which, though the language of the most stupid and thick-headed Sinners, who can no better distinguish 'twixt Words and Things, or 'twixt the Picture and the Life, or 'twixt the Vizard and the true Face, or 'twixt the Actor and the Man, or 'twixt the Use and the Abuse of the best things that can be nam'd, or last of all, betwixt a Nominal and Real Christian.
— Thomas Pierce, A Decad of Caveats to the People of England, 1679


Definition - a feeling of bitterness, irritation, or anger

Many of you may well think of the stomach as a happy place (or, as our Unabridged defines it, "a dilatation of the alimentary canal of a vertebrate communicating anteriorly with the esophagus and posteriorly with the duodenum"), but when the word began being used as a verb it was primarily concerned with ill-will (the earliest sense, in the early 16th century, was "to remember with anger, take offense at"). The noun form of stomaching came a few decades later. Both of these senses are now obsolete, and when we do use stomach as a verb it is generally in the sense of "to bear without overt reaction or resentment, to put up with."

And Would God they had made an ende of their most utragious stomaking of the mater, if it had ben for no more then for his sentence sake.
— John Rastell, The Third Booke, 1566


Definition - haughty, stubborn

Stiff-necked may not look like a religious word, but all of our earliest examples come from early translations of the Bible, or other religious writing.

William Tyndale, in his 1530 translation of The Pentateuch wrote "I se this people how that it is a stiffenecked people, let me alone that I maye destroye them and put out the name off them from vnder heauen." Miles Coverdale, in his 1535 completion of Tyndale's translation of the Bible, offered up "For thou art a styffnecked people." And in 1535 Martin Luther wrote of "styffe necked men, holdynge styffelye in theyr workes."

You should feel entirely comfortable using stiff-necked in non-ecclesiastical contexts.

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