The terms shake one’s head and nod one’s head have been in use for hundreds of years, and the exact etymology is unknown. These expressions mean two different things, though their definitions are becoming blurred. We will examine the definitions of the phrases shake one’s head and nod one’s head, their probably origin and some examples of their use in sentences.
To shake one’s head means to move it from side to side with a subtle twist of the neck. This is a gesture in most of the English-speaking world that means the word no, disapproval, or that the one who is gesturing is in disagreement. Many cultures outside of the English-speaking world also use the gesture of shaking one’s head to indicate no, disapproval, or that the one who is gesturing is in disagreement, though it is not universal. In recent years, the term shake one’s head has been used interchangeably with nod one’s head, using the phrase shake one’s head ‘yes’. This seems to be a very roundabout way to communicate. The word shake is derived from the Old English word sceacan, which means to move something to or fro, quickly. Many anthropologists believe that the gesture to shake one’s head is derived from the tendency for a baby to turn his head away from a food source when he is full, indicating that he does not want any more sustenance. Related phrases are shakes one’s head, shook one’s head, shaking one’s head. The noun form is headshake. Note that shake one’s head implies control over one’s movements. A shaking head outside of one’s control is considered a sign of palsy or neurological problems, or a head shake may simply be a nervous condition.
To nod one’s head means to move it up and down in a subtle manner, to slightly tilt it downward and upward in sequence. This is a gesture in most of the English-speaking world that means the word yes, approval, or that the one who is gesturing is in agreement. Head nodding may also be used as an informal, nonverbal greeting, a signal that someone is listening or an affirmation of someone’s feelings. Many cultures outside of the English-speaking world also use the gesture of nodding one’s head to indicate yes, approval, or that the one who is gesturing is in agreement, though it is not universal. For instance, in Bulgaria one shakes one’s head in approval and nods one’s head in disapproval. The word nod is probably derived from the German word knoton which means to shake. Many anthropologists believe that the gesture to nod one’s head is derived from the tendency for a baby to bob his head up and down when hungry, searching for a food source. If one becomes sleepy or drowsy, he is said to nod off. Related phrases are nods one’s head, nodded one’s head, nodding one’s head. The noun form is head nod.
Redick grimaced and shook his head only for a moment when McAdams, 52, of Groveland, accused him of being a “coward” for not looking at her during her statement. (The Union Democrat)
The release was coupled with Patterson’s first court hearing, in which he appeared by video in an orange jumpsuit from the county jail, shaking his head affirmatively and saying “Yes, sir,” to the judge’s questions. (The Washington Post)
“I remember every bit of it,” Rahoi said, nodding his head with satisfaction as he reflected on his many adventures during his century on this earth. (The Iron Mountain Daily News)
Somewhere, recently departed and freshly transferred Missouri quarterback Kelly Bryant was watching and nodding his head knowingly, saying, “That’s why I left.” (The Advocate)