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shameless pleading

Whitehead, like a

Get a move on.

Dear Word Detective: I was reading a letter written during the American Civil War, and it contained this: “The gunboat opened fire in return and after throwing a few 11-inch shells among them they, as usual, turned and ran like whiteheads.” I was surprised to see the phrase “ran like whiteheads” because it is something my mother used to say when she scared little kids out of the yard. I thought it was just her own idiolect. Do you have any clue as to where this expression might have originated? — William Blum.

Ah yes, the “idiolect,” that mix of grammar, vocabulary, pronunciation and emphasis unique to each individual’s speech. Bane of my existence, those idiolects. People write me asking what their strange uncle meant by calling them “farfleborts” when they were kids, and I spend three days scouring every reference source I have. Empty-handed, I report my failure, only to be informed that said uncle actually spoke almost entirely in gibberish and was ultimately confined for shouting at clouds.

In this case, of course, you’ve encountered the term in another context, so there’s no doubt about its independent existence. As a matter of fact, the phrase “like a whitehead” has quite a large entry in the Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE). Meaning “very fast or vigorously,” it first appeared in print in the 1820s, and seems to have been very popular in the 19th century from Vermont down to Tennessee and no doubt beyond (“Why, mammy, I was so skeered that I dropped the pail and run like a white-head” 1860, Kentucky).

Unfortunately, DARE reports that the origin of “like a whitehead” is unknown. Fortunately, other entries in DARE and elsewhere for “whitehead” may provide a clue. “Whitehead” has been widely used as a colloquial term for a variety of birds, from the young of partridges to various geese, owls, jays and gulls that happened to have light-colored heads. It’s likely that the “whitehead” in the phrase originally referred to the sort of shore bird that ran rapidly along the sand when alarmed.

Interestingly, there is another sort of “whitehead” (apart from the skin blemish sort) that also involves something moving very rapidly. Robert Whitehead (1823 – 1905) was an English engineer who invented the first truly effective naval torpedo in the 1860s, which revolutionized naval warfare and eventually made submarines a major factor in World Wars I and II. So notable was Whitehead’s invention in the late 19th century that his name, for a few years at least, became a eponym for “self-propelled torpedo” (“A blow with even an ordinary Whitehead, let alone the improved Whitehead of the German navy, would practically rip the bottom out of the strongest ship afloat.” 1884).

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