Dialect query: The head of/on/to him

Regular commenter John Cowan has a question on non-standard phrases, and hopes Sentence first readers can shed some light on it:

I’d like some information from native speakers of Hiberno-English, the English variety spoken in Ireland (all counties). I figure this is a good community to ask.

Consider these three kinds of possessives applied to body parts. None of them are part of Standard English, but they are all used in other languages and possibly in spoken Hiberno-English too.

1) The head of him is very large.
2) The head on him is very large.
3) The head to him is very large.

It would be extremely helpful to me if you could say which of these (if any) you would use, and when, and when (if ever) you hear them spoken by others. Comments like “Sure, I say that all the time” and “Not me, but people around me say it often” or “My grandmother used to say that” or “Not around here, but I believe it’s said in the North|South|East|West” would be even more helpful.

If it helps, substitute something else for the “is very large” part; that doesn’t matter. Any other body part would work too.

Speakers of other varieties, if you yourself regularly use any of these kinds of possessives, please tell me.

If you don’t want to go on record with this, private mail to cowan@ccil.org works for me.


My answer (from the mid-west of Ireland): I don’t think I’ve ever used or heard the construction in (3) (“The head to him…”). I hear those in (1) and (2) used informally quite often in contexts like:

A) The head of/on him (and the price of turnips/cabbage).

B) The face of/on that lad.

C) The puss of/on yer one. [puss = mouth, esp. sulking; one often pronounced wan, either naturally or affectedly]

Anton Seder Kohlrabi Leeks TurnipsAs well as hearing them, I’ve also used these lines (or versions of them), though I leave out the vegetable analogies. Where of is used, it’s typically unstressed and lacking the /v/ sound: The head o’ yer man. It’s more usually on in (C), for me.

Most are standalone expressions, I think. I’ve never heard any of them used before a phrase like “is very large”. (If I were to say that at all, I’d likely use standard syntax: His head is very large.)

Regarding meaning: In (A), The head on/of X = The state of X, drawing attention to X’s appearance for an unspecified reason, probably negative (e.g., dishevelled or strikingly unusual) – or it can suggest someone is self-important, as in this video of Dublin slang. Like many Irish insults, the disparagement does not preclude affection.

(B) implies a scowl or other sour expression. There’s a fair chance the speaker doesn’t feel the scowler’s attitude is justified. The puss in (C) implies a sulking expression, often a child’s; see my post on cnáimhseáil for a note on usage and etymology.

Then there are more obviously figurative expressions such as “The cheek of him” and “The neck of/on that lad”, the latter indicating brazenness. But since these don’t refer to actual body parts, they’re probably irrelevant. Maybe that goes for (C) too.

I’m probably overlooking a lot here, and your experience of these constructions may be quite different to mine – or you might be able to confirm what I’ve written. Can you help John out?

[Image: Kohlrabi, Leeks, Turnips lithograph by Anton Seder, via Wikimedia Commons]

31 Responses to Dialect query: The head of/on/to him

  1. John Cowan says:

    First, thanks, both for posting and for replying! I hadn’t thought about figurative uses of body parts, but more data is always better than less data.

    It’s particularly interesting to know that you can’t or don’t use this as the subject of an ordinary sentence, something I should have asked about. What about more slangy sentences? I thought about that, but didn’t think I could construct a convincing one, so stuck with boring old Standard English “is very large”.

  2. jill says:

    I’ve heard 2) ..the head on him… a lot, but rarely 1) ..the head of him… and never 3) ..the head to him.
    I am English but have lived in and around Dublin for 22years.

  3. Aoife says:

    As Jill says, I’ve heard plenty of “the head on him”, a little of “the head of him” and I’ve never heard “the head to him” at all. My favourite use of “the head on you” was when an American friend of a particular Irish descent described himself as Irish on Twitter. I couldn’t resist responding with “Sure you’re only a blow-in with a big Huguenot head on you!”

  4. Declan says:

    I’d subscribe to all of Mr Carey’s comments – I too have encountered ‘… on him…’ as normal, ‘…of him…’ occasionally, but ‘…to him…’ not as normal – I have heard it, but can neither remember the context nor the exact sentence, so I might be imagining this.

    Dublin Irish with a fair amount of experience of the North, Cork, and the West

  5. lproven says:

    #2 is the only one that I have heard constructions akin to. All sound of to be and I would never use them myself. (English, from the NW.)

  6. Dawn in NL says:

    Writing as a West Fife Scot, I really recognise Stan’s examples “the cheek of him” (pronounced more like ov um. I am pretty sure I have heard “See the puss on him” (pronounced oan um), but I think the usage is pretty well restricted to those examples.

  7. Millymelon says:

    My Antrim relations would say something like “he had a face on him like a smacked arse”. Also “would you look at the (hands) on him” where (hands) = any body part worth remarking on.

    They can’t hear “of” and say DEFINITELY not “to”. Hilariously strong reaction against that one, compared to a mildly confused ‘I don’t think so’ with regard to “of”

  8. wisewebwoman says:

    “on him” I was brought up with. (“the legs on her, would you look!”) I imagine a direct translation of the Irish language? “To him” is a useage I hear a lot out here in Newfoundland. So would assume it originated in Waterford/Wexford where most ancestors emigrated from back in the day. Also many unusual uses of “at”.

  9. Lady Demelza says:

    I am Australian, brought up in a family that speaks the very broad Australian dialect we call ‘ocker.’
    I am very familiar and comfortable with the ‘on him’ construction and often use it myself. I’ve never heard the ‘to him’ or ‘of him’ versions used that I can recall.
    The quotes provided by Millymelon and Wisewebwoman above are just exactly how I would use or expect to hear this.
    “He’s got a good head on him” is quite common and means that he is sensible and likely to behave well and cope well with challenges.
    We can be a bit more disparaging by replacing the gendered pronoun with ‘that’. “Would you look at the head on that!” would be extremely derogative.

  10. Stan says:

    Thank you all for the helpful comments and examples and queries to relatives or neighbours. It’s fun reading your responses!

    Taking “The head on him” as the prototypical phrase, it’s true that it’s rarely if ever the subject of a sentence (unless I’m missing something), but I’d forgotten how common it is as object, as in “Would you look at the head on that fella”, Aoife’s great line “Sure you’re only a blow-in with a big Huguenot head on you!”, and Millymelon’s vivid “He had a face on him like a smacked arse.” The prototypical phrase could be elliptical.

    Speaking of which, that mention of arse and WWW’s “the legs on her” remind me of how it’s popularly used in a praiseworthy sense, to indicate physical attraction, as in “The arse on her/him/that!” It can apply with a similar motivation to other body parts, either general (muscles, say) or specific (…). In this case referring to someone as “that” isn’t derogative but may strengthen the sense of their objectification.

    Lady Demelza’s “He’s got a good head on him” rings true too: I hear it (and close variations) pretty regularly, and have probably used them too. I remember my uncle saying to me, when I was learning to drive, “I’d say you’d be a good driver – you’ve a good head on you.”

  11. mollymooly says:

    Cork. Only heard “on”. Might occasionally have used it myself.

    I think the examples offered show there isn’t a syntactic restriction like not-in-subject-position so much as a semantic or pragmatic restriction: pointing out a remarkable sight. Prototypically “look at [body-part]”, but also “you should have seen [body-part]”.

    “The face on him!” could denote unusual features or an unusual expression.

  12. helenmm says:

    I’d also hear (and use) ‘I’ve a fierce head on me’ for a hangover and as a Dub (now in Galway) I’d say ‘the head on him, it’s only massive!’ ;-)

  13. mollymooly says:

    Then there’s “He is/has/looks the head off his father”, for close family resemblance.

  14. John Cowan says:

    I remember now where I saw the “to him” construction: in At Swim-Two-Birds!

    The neck to him [Finn MacCool] was as the bole of a great oak, knotted and seized together with muscle-humps and carbuncles of tangled sinew, the better for good feasting and contending with the bards. The chest to him was wider than the poles of a good chariot, coming now out, now in, and pastured from chin to navel with meadows of black man-hair and meated with layers of fine man-meat the better to hide his bones and fashion the semblance of his twin bubs. The arms to him were like the necks of beasts, ball-swollen with their bunched-up brawnstrings and blood-veins, the better for harping and hunting and contending with the bards. Each thigh to him was to the thickness of a horse’s belly, narrowing to a green-veined calf to the thickness of a foal. Three fifties of fosterlings could engage with handball against the wideness of his backside, which was wide enough to halt the march of warriors through a mountain-pass.

    We get further “the bog-cloth drawers to his fork”, “the gutted jacket to his back”, “the knees and calves to him”, “the nose” and later “the mouth to his white wheyface”, “the caverns to the butt of his nose”, “the dark hollow to each tooth”, and even “the colour to each great eyeball”, but on the other hand “the watchful host of his honey-yellow teeth”, where host is not a body part, embedded among them.

    Now Flann O’Brien certainly knew his way around both languages. Is all this just Stage-Irish, or rather a massive exaggeration of even that grossly exaggerated pseudo-dialect? Or is there something in Irish (which after all has a dative case, at least in Munster) underlying it all? In any case, I cannot resist adding a bit more, in which Finn explains some of the kinds of people who don’t get to join the Fianna:

    One hundred head of cattle he [the candidate] must accommodate with wisdom about his person when walking all Erin, the half about his armpits and the half about his trews, his mouth never halting from the discoursing of sweet poetry. One thousand rams he must sequester about his trunks with no offence to the men of Erin, or he is unknown to Finn.

  15. John Cowan says:

    Thanks to all for your responses, and I hope to see more soon. Note that of course “good head on his shoulders” is a literal use of on, and as such doesn’t fit with this construction, whereas “good head on him” does.

  16. mollymooly says:

    I don’t think “Stage Irish” applies to the Swim-Two-Birds excerpt. Lady Gregory’s Kiltartanese retellings of Irish myths might qualify as such, but I don’t think Flann is parodying her so much as translators who value faithfulness to the source idiom to the detriment of naturalness in the target language. But I’m very ignorant on the topic. I don’t know if the “to him” is an awkwardly literal rendering of a genuine Irish construction, or an awkwardness invented out of whole cloth. Either would be funny.

  17. Liam Hogan says:

    “head off” for likeness has entirely replaced “looks like” in Tipperary.

  18. Stan says:

    Thanks for the additional examples and insights.

    Helenmm’s “I’ve a fierce head on me” reminds me of the similar “sore head on”, which can refer to actual pain, as in a hangover, or to crossness or short-temperedness.

    Mollymooly’s and Liam’s “the head off X” phrase, indicating physical resemblance, is common around Ireland, I think. I’ve heard it in the west and south anyway. Via Twitter I got confirmation of its use in Cork, and further reports of the predominant “head on X” construction.

    Flann O’Brien’s liberal use of the possessive to is remarkable. It’s a long time since I read At Swim-Two-Birds, and I had completely forgotten that. I can’t think what Irish idiom he might have taken it from, unless perhaps it’s a playful spin on certain uses of chuig.

  19. Jean Clarkin says:

    Grandparents from the west of Ireland, and father and his siblings would use #2 option regularly – as in: Oh the face on her would curdle milk! Or about my cousin on the other side, who was thought to have an enormous head: The head on him is like a pumpkin!

    Never heard the other options.
    (I’m USian, New York raised)

  20. Eimear Ní Mhéalóid says:

    Mostly speculation, but it would seem to me that Flann is translating “ar” as “to” rather than “on”. I’m no scholar of old or middle Irish, but some poking around the UCC Celt corpus and the eDIL shows “ar” as the usual preposition in these descriptive passages. I think this is just Flann O’Brien being whimsical, although of course there isn’t one-to-one correspondence between the English preposition “on” and the Irish “ar”.
    It’s worth remembering that in Irish, phrases such as “He has fair hair” and “She has brown eyes” are all expressed with “ar” (“tá gruaig fionn air”) which no doubt has had an effect on Hiberno-English.

  21. Stan says:

    Jean, Eimear, Thomas: Thanks for your helpful comments.

    Something else I neglected to say earlier: head in “head on him” constructions is often modified by an adjective (or two, or more) describing what’s distinctive about the head in question; for example, “He was easy [to] spot with the big curly head on him.” Big there says nothing about the head’s size; it just emphasises the curliness. And it isn’t always literal: “The big Dublin head on ya” just notes the person’s origin.

  22. Ben Hemmens says:

    The on for possession is something I’d be familiar with (north Co. Dublin). However, I’d be hard out to demarcate it sharply from things that you might use “on” for in other varieties of English. We might say “there’d be money on yer man” and would likely not be referring to cash that he would have on his person at the moment of speaking; but then again we might be. “The face on him” probably has more to do with the fact that one’s face is indeed usually situated on one’s person than with possession, but it also allows us to front “face” for emphasis.

    “There’s a hunger on me” and a scattering of analogous expressions are mostly intended as conscious and straight translations from the Irish.

    As for off, did “I’ll reef the bleedin’ ears off yeh” imply physically detaching the ears from the addressee, or simply pulling the ears that belong to them? I think the former was meant, even if the threat was exaggerated.

    I have never heard Flann O’Brien’s “to” in speech (then again. O’Nolan was exposed to parts of Ireland in his childhood that are foreign to me: Cos. Tyrone and Offaly) but by some sorcery it is instantly understandable in the Finn passages of at-Swim-two-birds and seems to me to contribute to their formal, epic tone.

    • Stan says:

      Ben: That’s true about O’Brien’s sorcery. The construction had the same effect on me, more than the passage would have achieved through more familiar syntax, I think. X to him serves to better isolate each body part and emphasise its magnitude in the description.

      • John Cowan says:

        There’s something about the one thousand rams in one’s underwear that just takes exaggeration far beyond its normal scope into something wild and indeed sorcerous.

  23. hector says:

    My parents were Protestants from within the Pale who immigrated to Canada in the 1920s. Rather than saying, for instance, that someone was fat, they’d say “Would you look at the belly on him.” The “of him” construction, as I remember it, was confined to things like “the gall of him, talking to me like that.”

  24. […] head on her like Methuselah’s goat. [She’s old looking. See my recent post on the Irish dialectal construction the head on him.] […]

  25. John Cowan says:

    I now know that this O’Brien to him is a Standard Average European construct called an “external dative possessor”. In French, for example, you can say Le médecin leur a examiné la gorge, which literally is ‘The doctor examined the throats to them’, and likewise Der Arzt untersuchte ihnen die Kehle (I think). English can’t say things like that, though we used to be able to: in late-9C Old English we find þa sticode him mon þa eaġan ut ‘then someone gouged him the eyes out’. But although English has most of the features of the Standard Average European Sprachbund, and the Celtic languages remain totally outside it.

    • Stan Carey says:

      Very interesting. I remember when learning languages in school (French, German, Irish), I would sometimes translate directly into English to ‘see’ the grammar better, and I may even have done this with the construction in question: your French example prodded a tenuous memory along these lines. I suppose it’s not surprising that English used to have it too.

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