The Grammarphobia Blog

Like a hole in the head

Q: Do you have an explanation of the saying, “I need this like I need a third armpit”? Where does it come from?

A: The expression is new to us. We couldn’t find that exact wording online, though we came across dozens of references to a website called “I Need This Like a Third Armpit.”

We also found many similar expressions on the Web, including “I need this like I need a tooth pulled,” “I need this like I need another pair of legs,” and “I need this like I need a heart attack.”

All of them are variations on a theme—the old saying “I need this [or whatever] like a hole in the head.” (The expression is often seen with the verb repeated: “I need this like I need a hole in the head.”)

The expression is a jocular way of describing something that you don’t need and don’t want. In fact, you could make up your own variation to describe something useless: “I need [fill in the blank] like a [fill in the blank].”

The Oxford English Dictionary says the phrase “to need (something) like a hole in the head” is “applied to something not desired at all or something useless.”

The OED compares the expression to a similar one in Yiddish, “Ich darf es vi a loch in kop” (I need it like a hole in the head).

While the dictionary doesn’t actually say the English version is derived from the Yiddish, we’re willing to bet that it is.

Oxford has several written examples of the usage, with the earliest dating from 1951. Here are the first two citations:

“A smart operator needs a dame like he needs a hole in the head.” (From Marshall McLuhan’s The Mechanical Bride: Folklore of Industrial Man, 1951.)

“The Disciples … were about as much use to Him as a hole in the head.” (From J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, 1951.)

However, we found many older references dating from as much as 30 years earlier.

For example, this passage is from The Heritage (1921), a collection of stories by Viola Brothers Shore: “ ‘He needs a car,’ commented her husband, ‘like I need a hole in the back of my head to let out the steam.’ ”

A character in Clifford Odets’s play Awake and Sing! (1933) remarks, “I need a wife like a hole in the head.”

And these lines, spoken by a character named Mrs. Levine, come from Arthur Kober’s story collection Thunder Over the Bronx (1935): “ ‘I need a dug in house like I need a hole in head. I need a hole in head?’ she asked rhetorically.”

Apparently Kober liked that passage. Here’s a reprise from another story collection, My Dear Bella (1941):

“ ‘He needs a britch table like I need a hole in head! I need a hole in head?’ he asked rhetorically.” In fact, Kober uses the expression “like I need a hole in head” at least twice in this book.

Those three writers—Shore, Odets, and Kober—were Jewish.

Shore supposedly descended from the first Kosher butcher in New York. Her stories were about Jewish Americans and their lives.

Odets was the son of Russian and Romanian Jewish immigrants, and Awake and Sing! is about an impoverished Jewish family in the Bronx.

Kober was a humorist known for his comically stereotypical portrayals of Jewish characters, some of whom spoke English haltingly.

It seems likely that these authors were adapting a familiar Yiddish usage, and that the “hole in the head” expression came to America with Yiddish-speaking Jewish immigrants.

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