Monday, August 9, 2010

the linguistics of love

A recent tweet from CursorTN does a nice bit of frame semantic analysis: the expression for being irrationally in love *should* be "heels over head in love." Think about it.

Hmmmm, yes, yes, this seems correct. What the hell does 'head over heels' mean anyway? I'm head over heels right now and I'm sitting at a computer typing!

Presumably there is a romantic attraction frame (can't find anything like this at FrameNet, might have missed it) whereby  being in love upsets your natural state. if your natural physical state is standing upright, then you naturally are 'head over heels.' Hence, when you are in love, your natural state is up ended and you become 'heels of head.' And yet this is not the phrase in use.

A little googling and I found a few websites which have discussed this before, but only one gives us some historical background:

The Phrase Finder: 'Head over heels' is a good example of how language can communicate meaning even when it makes no literal sense. After all, our head is normally over our heels. The phrase originated in the 14th century as 'heels over head', meaning doing a cartwheel or somersault.

Now can we figure out how the reversal occurred?

1 comment:

Alon said...

The OED dates "head over heels" back to 1771:

b. head over heels: a corruption of heels over head, frequent in modern use: see HEEL n.1 Also fig. (In quot. 1924 with contextual omission of heels.)

1771 Contemplative Man I. 133 He gave [him] such a violent involuntary kick in the Face, as drove him Head over Heels. 1834 D. CROCKETT Narr. Life i. 20, I soon found myself head over heels in love with this girl. 1840 THACKERAY Paris Sk.-bk. (1869) 32 Why did you..hurl royalty..head-over-heels out of yonder Tuileries' windows? 1887 RIDER HAGGARD Jess i. 4 Away he went head-over-heels like a shot rabbit. 1924 GALSWORTHY White Monkey II. vi. 158 They were head over{em}the family feud stopped that [marriage].


The 1995 M-W Dictionary of English usage has more on the subject, which can be summarised as "it's been around for so long that it's fossilised; deal with it".

NLPers: How would you characterize your linguistics background?

That was the poll question my hero Professor Emily Bender posed on Twitter March 30th. 573 tweets later, a truly epic thread had been cre...