Can’t Make Heads or Tails – Meaning and Origin

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Candace Osmond

Candace Osmond studied Advanced Writing & Editing Essentials at MHC. She’s been an International and USA TODAY Bestselling Author for over a decade. And she’s worked as an Editor for several mid-sized publications. Candace has a keen eye for content editing and a high degree of expertise in Fiction.

The idiom can’t make heads or tails means to be completely puzzled or unable to make sense of something. Think of it as the verbal version of that shrug emoji you use when you’re totally flummoxed.

It comes from Ancient Rome, but this article goes deeper into its origin and explains the meaning of the phrase as an idiom while providing alternative sayings. I also cover how to use it in a sentence with examples pulled from around the world.

Idioms are figurative sayings we use in place of common words and phrases to help paint more vivid pictures to communicate with. They’re crucial to the English language because they evoke feelings and emotions to accompany our words. Keep reading to learn more about this common idiom and how to use it!

What Does Can’t Make Heads or Tails Mean?

Cant Make Heads or Tails – Meaning and Origin

Can’t make heads or tails is an idiom used when someone cannot understand or make sense of a situation. It’s often used when dealing with complex, confusing, or unclear matters.

Various dictionaries have provided their spin on our quirky idiom. The Cambridge Dictionary and Merriam-Webster both say that the idiom can’t make heads or tails simply means to not be able to understand something.

Heads or Tails vs. Can’t Make Heads or Tails

Heads or tails is what you would say when you’re about to flip a coin and is a way of asking the other person which side they choose. But can’t make heads or tails has little to do with coinage and more about feeling utterly bewildered. The former is a question, and the latter is a statement of sheer confusion.

What Is the Literal and Figurative Meaning of This Idiom?

Literally, it harkens to the two sides of a coin. Figuratively, it’s all about that feeling of, “What on earth is going on?” or “I just can’t figure this out!”

How Can We Use Can’t Make Heads or Tails in a Sentence?

The idiom can’t make heads or tails is fairly versatile in how you can use it, fitting snugly into different sentence structures. It can stand alone as a statement, be embedded within a larger sentence, or work in a question. Here are some examples of using the expression in different contexts and regions.

As a Verb Phrase

Here, the idiom works as the main action or verb of the sentence.

Example: “I just can’t make heads or tails of this new software update that’s supposed to make things easier.”

As a Standalone Statement

Sometimes, when words fail us, we resort to idioms. Using can’t make heads or tails as a standalone statement can be a quick, quippy way of expressing our befuddlement without any fluff.

An example that can be used when you’re confused about anything at all: “I can’t make heads or tails of it.”

Within a Larger Sentence

When mixed in with other words and thoughts, the idiom can be a component of a larger narrative, giving more details and context into how you’re feeling about something.

Example: After reading the old poem three times, I still can’t make heads or tails of what the writer is trying to convey.

When Used In a Question

Using the idiom can’t make heads or tails in a question tells others just how confused you are and asks for help or clarification.

Example: You’ve been looking at this computer code for hours; can’t you make heads or tails of what the problem is?

In What Contexts Is Can’t Make Heads or Tails Commonly Used?

Cant Make Heads or Tails – Meaning and Origin 1

It’s the go-to phrase for anything perplexing. But in terms of common, everyday usage, here’s how to use it:

1.      When assembling an IKEA bookshelf and the instructions make no sense, you could say, “I can’t make heads or tails of these instructions!”

2.      If you’re helping your kid with their math homework, but they don’t do math the same way you did in school, you could mutter, “I can’t make heads or tails of your teacher’s notes.”

Is There a Difference in the Usage of This Idiom in British English and American English?

Yes, you’ll find the expression can’t make heads or tails used in both American and British English. But the Brits tend to shorten it to can’t make head or tail.

Are There Notable Examples of Can’t Make Heads or Tails in Literature and Media?

There sure is!

It’s a classic tale of underdog vs shoe-in, and the best of guesses are may be no more accurate than calling heads or tails; it’s all up in the air. (The Decaturian)

“We couldn’t make heads or tails of what we were being told,” she said. (The Daily Breeze)

If you can’t make heads or tails of the list, simply turn off each gadget one by one (or just disable the gadget’s Wi-Fi ) to figure out what is what. (The Monroe News Star)

Many reporters, and a majority of South Koreans, could not make heads or tails of the commentators’ analysis. (The New York Times)

What Is the Origin of Can’t Make Heads or Tails?

The phrase can’t make heads or tails is widely attributed to ancient Rome. Notably, Cicero coined a similar expression, “Ne caput nec pedes,” translating as “neither head nor feet,” when he was referring to a state of confusion.

However, the idiom, as it’s known today, began gaining popularity in English around the 1600s. While the notion of confusion is common in both these expressions, it’s important to emphasize that the specific English phrase as we use it may have evolved independently over time.

Which Idioms Relate to Can’t Make Heads or Tails?

Here are some similar idioms to can’t make heads or tails that also convey confusion or uncertainty:

  • Can’t see the wood for the trees: Unable to grasp the whole situation because of focusing too much on details.
  • In a fog: In a state of confusion or lack of clarity.
  • At sea: Feeling lost, bewildered, or confused.
  • Up in the air: Undecided or uncertain about something.
  • Out of one’s depth: In a situation that is too difficult to manage or understand.
  • Lost the plot: Lost one’s ability to understand or cope with what is happening.
  • Off the mark: Incorrect or inaccurate understanding or interpretation.
  • Lost in translation: When details about something were communicated or interpreted incorrectly.

Synonyms/Similar Phrases

These synonymous words and phrases work just as well as saying you can’t make heads or tails of something.

  • Baffled
  • Confounded
  • Mystified
  • Perplexed
  • Flummoxed
  • Can’t figure it out
  • Unable to decipher
  • Can’t comprehend
  • Fails to understand
  • Can’t make sense of
  • At a loss
  • Baffled by
  • Puzzled by
  • Confounded by
  • Can’t get the hang of
  • Can’t understand
  • Can’t fathom
  • Stuck on
  • Can’t wrap my head around
  • Clueless about
  • In the dark about
  • Can’t grasp
  • Beat about
  • Nonplussed by
  • Can’t suss out
  • Perplexed by

Common Misinterpretations or Misuses

When using idioms, it’s essential to get all the facts straight, like proper spelling and punctuation, and to use it in the right context. Here are a few wrong ways to use the expression can’t make heads or tails.

1.      Writing heads or tales. Tales and tails are homonyms (words that sound the same but are spelled differently and have different meanings). However, if you’re writing this idiom, you must use tails.

2.      Using the phrase when referring to flipping a coin. Even though both coin tossing and being confused use the terms heads and tails, the idiom has nothing to do with leaving things up to chance.

Why Is Understanding the Meaning of Can’t Make Heads or Tails Important?

Knowing the correct meaning and usage of the idiom can’t make heads or tails is important for effective communication. It helps to prevent misunderstandings in conversations.

A good understanding of idioms also improves language skills. It lets you express yourself more clearly and makes your language more interesting. Therefore, understanding this idiom helps you communicate better and increases your command of the language.

Heads or Tails?

The idiom can’t make heads or tails is a potent tool in our linguistic arsenal, denoting a state of utter confusion or complexity. While its roots stretch back to Ancient Rome, its relevance remains unscathed in the modern world, offering an expressive alternative to simply saying we’re confused.Its vivid imagery enriches our communication by adding an emotional layer to our expressions. Understanding and using such idioms enhances our language proficiency and enables us to paint more evocative and engaging narratives. So next time you’re baffled, remember, you can always say you can’t make heads or tails of it!

Want to know more idioms? Check out some others we covered: