The Grammarphobia Blog

Why is a ship’s toilet a head?

Q: Your article about “masthead” raises an interesting question: how about the naval term “head” as a place for defecation?

A: When the word “head” was first used in a nautical sense back in Anglo-Saxon times (spelled heafod in Old English), it referred to a ship’s figurehead.

By the 1400s, the term “head” or “boat head” was being used to refer to the front or bow of a ship, boat, or other vessel, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

So how did the word “head” come to mean a toilet on a ship? You’ve probably figured that out by now. The term referred to a lavatory in the bow of a vessel.

The earliest example of this usage in the OED is from A Cruising Voyage Round the World, a 1712 book by the English sea captain Woodes Rogers: “He begg’d to go into the Head to ease himself.”

And here’s a citation from The Adventures of Roderick Random, a 1748 novel by Tobias Smollett: “The madman … took an opportunity, while the centinel attended him at the head, to leap over-board.”

The most recent example of the usage in the OED is from The Last Heathen (2004), Charles Montgomery’s memoir about a trip to Melanesia to see the area visited by his missionary great-grandfather in the 19th century:

“The floor was a slippery paste of oil, spit, crushed insects, and a disturbing slurry that seeped from the ship’s head.”

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