The Grammarphobia Blog

A whole lotta shakin’ goin’ on

Q: Since when did “shaking” one’s head come to mean affirmative agreement? I thought the term “shaking” was negative and “nodding” was affirmative. But I don’t hear anyone say “nodding” anymore. Is it just me?

A: In much of the world, though not everywhere, moving one’s head down and up indicates agreement and moving one’s head from side to side indicates disagreement.

In English, the vertical movement is referred to as “nodding one’s head” and the horizontal movement as “shaking one’s head,” according to standard dictionaries.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.), for example, defines the verb “nod” as “to lower and raise the head quickly, as in agreement or acknowledgement.”

And the Collins English Dictionary says “to shake one’s head” means “to indicate disagreement or disapproval by moving the head from side to side.”

That’s the way we’ve always understood this nodding and shaking business. A bit of googling, however, suggests that an awful lot of people use the terms “nodding” and “shaking” interchangeably these days.

For example, we got 322,000 hits for “nodding his head yes” and 840,000 for “nodding his head no.” Although we got more than 6.5 million hits for “shaking his head no,” we also got 768,000 for “shaking his head yes.”

It’s pretty obvious, as you (and Jerry Lee Lewis) have observed, that there’s a whole lotta shakin’ goin’ on.

We’ll stick with using “nodding” for vertical agreement and “shaking” for horizontal disagreement, but we wouldn’t be surprised if “shaking” in either direction becomes the default term, especially in American English.

British dictionaries tend to make more of a distinction between “nodding” and “shaking” of the head. In fact, most of the US dictionaries we checked don’t even bother to define “shaking” in this sense.

That’s a shame. The verbal phrase “to shake one’s head” has been part of English since before 1300, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The OED defines it as “to turn the head slightly to one side and the other in sorrow or scorn, or to express disapproval, dissent or doubt.”

In The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872), Charles Darwin cites examples from Asia, Africa, and Europe where the vertical movement means yes and the horizontal movement means no.

But he adds that “these signs are not so universally employed as I should have expected; yet they seem too general to be ranked as altogether conventional or artificial.”

One exception that’s frequently cited now is Bulgaria, where the vertical head movement means no and the horizontal movement means yes.

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