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bullet-headed

July 30, 2020

Recently I have been re-reading one of my old William books, William – In Trouble (and by the way, they are called William books, not Just William books – see my earlier post on this issue at https://brandonrobshawtheenglishlanguage.com/2018/01/29/just-sic-william/)  – and in the wonderful story ‘William Among the Poets’ I came across this sentence: ‘Their four bullet heads peered furtively over the window sill of each downstairs window’.

Bullet heads. That’s an interesting expression, isn’t it? You don’t hear it so quite often these days, but once it was in common usage. Richmal Crompton uses it on several occasions, and so too does Frank Richards in his Greyfriars stories. It even appears in a Beatles song, Bungalow Bill: ‘He’s the all-American bullet-headed Saxon mother’s son’. Bullet Head  is also the title of a 2017 heist movie.

But what does it mean, exactly? My Compact Oxford English Dictionary (1994) defines bullet-head as ‘a. a head round like a bullet; b. a person with such a head; in U.S, fig. A ‘pig-headed’ obstinate person’. Online sources such as Collins, Merrion Webster and the Free Online Dictionary give similar meanings. But I don’t actually think this does justice to the word. It might suggest something about the shape – small and roundly pointed – and maybe in America it does suggest obstinacy, but to me it also has connotations of hardness, toughness, with a suggestion of vigour and energy; perhaps not over-burdened with thought. I think you’d be more likely to use it of a boy than a girl; and also of a boy rather than a man. I feel if someone had referred to me as ‘bullet-headed’ when I was a kid I’d have felt vaguely flattered; but if it were said of me now I would be rather annoyed.

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5 Comments
  1. Simon Carter permalink

    There used to be a raft of these idiomatic expressions which seem to be falling out of common usage; cloth eared, butter fingered, faint / stout hearted, feather / bird / harebrained, lily livered, acid tongued, etc.
    Not forgetting Frank Richards’ beloved gimlet eyed.

  2. Mark Allan Brafield permalink

    I am reminded of the description of the Miller in the Prologue to the Canterbury Tales;

    ‘He was short-sholdred, brood, a thikke knarre;
    There was no dore that he nolde heve of harre,
    Or breke it at a rennying with his heed’.

    I learned those lines for my A Level English, and they have kept me company down the years ever since.

    More recently, in Cabin Pressure, the wonderful, wonderful Radio 4 comedy by John Finnemore, a particularly officious ex-army type on a meaningless training exercise is referred to as ‘bristle-headed’.

    • Hi Mark. This reminds me that I promised myself to re-read The Canterbury Tales during lockdown and haven’t done so yet – must get on with that! I don’t know Cabin Pressure but will check it out!

      • Mark Brafield permalink

        Oh, you must find Cabin Pressure – an absolute masterpiece of comedy with a cast to die for (Benedict Cumberbatch, Roger Allam, Stephanie Cole, John Finnemore) and a cult following among its listeners. Start at episode 1 and 26 episodes of radio bliss are yours. ‘The lemon is in play ….’

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