dickhead, butthead, whatever

An entertaining piece on Slate’s Lexicon Valley blog by Neal Whitman on the 4th, “Dickheads Are More Like Buttheads Than A**holes”, beginning:

On a recent episode of The Sid Rosenberg Show, a sports talk radio program on WMEN in Royal Palm Beach, Fla., former New York Giants linebacker Lawrence Taylor called former NFL quarterback Boomer Esiason — with whom he’s had a longstanding feud — a “dickhead.” Which raises the question: Did L.T. imply that Boomer was someone whose entire being consists of the head of a dick OR someone who has a dick for a head? (Yes, these are the sorts of things that linguists care about.)

Neal goes on to distinguish endocentric (subsective) compounds from exocentric (headless) ones, giving asshole as an example of the first sort (an asshole is a hole, and then the compound can be extended metaphorically to people) and butthead as an example of the second. What about dickhead?

Neal considers the question:

Since both readings of dickhead have precedents, it’s hard to say which kind of compound it in fact is. A Google image search yields hundreds of hits for the word, many of them photos of actual people who are evidently dickheads in someone’s opinion. But 10 or 15 of them were more illuminating. For the endocentric reading (parallel to asshole), I found no images at all. For the exocentric meaning (parallel to butthead), I found six images of people whose heads consisted of a penis or penises.

Interestingly, the remaining images suggested a meaning for dickhead that hadn’t even occurred to me. A bunch of them were pictures of people with penises on top of their heads. Hmm. So is that endocentric or exocentric? Sure, it’s true that dickhead as an endocentric compound doesn’t necessarily mean “head of a dick”; it may arguably denote a head with a dick, and a head with a dick on top would certainly qualify. After all, if you want to talk about someone standing over there with a dick on his head, what other word would you use? And it turns out there’s precedent for this meaning, too. Google image searches for shithead and meathead return more pictures of heads with shit or meat on them than of heads consisting of shit or meat (and of course there are cheeseheads).

Linguists will go anywhere.

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