Wednesday, July 10, 2024

RETRO Episode 78: Heads Will Roll


This week Shauna and Dan explore the phrase "Heads Will Roll" featuring blood-lusting kings, murderous queens, and tyrannical dictators. Bonus: William Shakespeare, Lewis Carroll, and Beetlejuice.

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Bunny Trails: A Word History Podcast
RETRO Episode 78: Heads Will Roll
Original Record Date: February 23, 2020
Original Air Date: February 26, 2020
RETRO Record Date: July 6, 2024
RETRO Air Date: July 10, 2024

Welcome back to Bunny Trails everyone. Shauna is still on vacation so we have another RETRO episode for you. This week we are digging back into the archives to find an episode Dan really enjoyed.

This episode is a little less polished than our more recent episodes. And when this one originally aired, we were just starting with COVID in the United States. We hadn’t quite shut everything down, but we were definitely already doing a ton of preparations for what would happen if COVID became a huge problem locally. Spoiler Alert: It did.

You’ll hear Shauna and I talk back and forth in this episode about interpretations of the research, which I personally really enjoy, but can come across as less polished so we do more presenting the information these days.

At the end of the episode, Shauna pines for a future without war and strife. And in today’s climate, I think that wish is more prescient than ever.

Before we jump into the episode, we need to give a special thanks to our patrons, especially Pat Rowe and Mary Halsig Lopez.  Without our Patrons, we would not be able to make the show. Our Pateron is free to join - you just need a free Patreon account, but we also have several tiers where you can help support the show and get some additional cool perks, too. You can join the community on Patreon,   

And now, I send you on to the guillotine, originally airing February 26, 2020, Episode 78: Heads Will Roll

Bunny Trails
Episode 78: Heads Will Roll
Record Date: February 23, 2020
Air Date: February 26, 2020


Welcome to Bunny Trails, a whimsical adventure of idioms and other turns of phrase.

I’m Dan Pugh

And I’m Shauna Harrison

Every Wednesday, we take an idiom, or other turn of phrase, and try to tell the story from it’s entry to the English language, to how it’s used today.

So, how are you Dan?

Dan: Good… yadda yadda And you, Shauna?

Shauna: I’m a little irritated. Like, I’m sorta mad. Seriously, if somebody doesn’t do something, then heads are gonna roll.  


Heads will roll is an idiomatic phrase that means someone will be punished or somebody’s in big trouble.

Origins and History

But how did heads will roll get its start?

Dan, what do you think of when you hear the phrase?

Heads will roll is one of the best examples of hyperbole. It’s a reference to the capital punishment of decapitation and also the phrase Off with their heads.

Off with your head is a reference to capital punishment by way of decapitation. It is sometimes used in a joking manner similar to phrases like, “get outta here” or “shut up”. These are all used as extreme contrasts to the actual meaning and are typically used as an expression of surprise or disbelief.

Oxford English Dictionary gives a few definitions for the figurative usage of the word off.

In imperative phrases. off! = stand off! be off! off with (something): take off (something). off (with you)!: go away! - and we’ll croff-reference another meaning here in a moment.

c1475, the play Mankind was written. Frederick James Furnivall and Alfred W Pollard compiled and edited it in a series of old to middle english writings in 1969. The text included the quote:
Anon of wyth yowr clothes.
I have no idea what it's in reference to, but it’s pretty great that this is the first attestation of the usage of off in this manner.

In William Shakespeare’s Richard III, completed around 1597, we find the line:  
Off with his sonne Georges head.

Dramatic performances have long been a place where politics and social issues were highlighted and judged. And for the most part, so long as it was entertaining, the shows were not shut down and the writers didn’t get in trouble. If we think about jesters and the like, we find a similar situation at play… individuals in certain roles, like satirists and comedians, poking fun at those in power without facing the same consequences as the common person. This has been true for centuries.    

Now for that cross-reference I know everyone has been waiting for!

The intransitive form of the figurative use of off - to off with: to take off instantly. This is nonstandard, regional, or humorous. to off with a person's head: to decapitate unceremoniously (used with humorous allusion to the command ‘Off with his head!’).

In 1805, poet Robert Anderson writes in Ballads in the Cumberland dialect:
I off wi' my clogs, and as whisht as a mouse, Claver'd up to the window.

From the February 23, 1892 edition of the Daily News out of London, we find the quote:
They offed with his head.
In this case, they were reporting a story and the phrase was simply used to describe a beheading.

Our next reference is from 1895 in Kenneth Grahame’s Golden Age.
When the Queen said ‘Off with his head!’ she'd have offed with your head.

While I love these references, they really only show the use of a phrase that likely had already been around. So where did it begin?

Many believe the phrase originated with Bloody Queen Mary - whether that is Mary, Queen of Scots or Mary I of England... Well, that’s an entirely separate discussion. Historians will focus on the latter of those two. Mary I of England was the daughter of Henry VIII. She was in power from 1553 to 1558. Now, many know about Henry VIII. He had six wives… one died, one survived, two divorced, two beheaded. While Mary I may have ordered the deaths of quite a few people in her short six years as queen - nearly 300… she was nothing compared with her father. Henry VIII was responsible for tens of thousands of deaths. Estimates put the numbers somewhere between 55,000 and 72,000 beheadings that were a result of his direct orders or rules for engagement. If anyone coined this phrase, it was probably him.

The modern idea that this phrase came from a female queen is likely due to the popularity of the Queen of Hearts and Red Queen from the Lewis Carroll novels Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Into the Looking Glass. These stories have been additionally popularized by the recent movies.

The connection to history for this and what may make this seem more likely to people is perhaps the fact that Mary Queen of Scots was ordered to death by Elizabeth I of England after being found guilty of plotting to kill Queen Elizabeth. Mary Queen of Scots was killed in 1587. So, it was 10 years after this that Shakespeare used the phrase in his works. But as we know, if Shakespeare used it in one of his plays, he likely heard it somewhere else first.

This brings us to a modern spin on this concept in the phrase heads will roll.

Oxford English Dictionary tells us

heads will roll and variants: people will be dismissed, forced to resign, or otherwise stripped of power.
In allusion to a literal threat of executions made by Adolf Hitler. Like the latter, similar earlier expressions usually include a modifier of heads and a prepositional phrase indicating location.

September 26, 1930 - Daily Herald out of London
Giving evidence, Hitler declared..‘If our movement is victorious there will be a revolutionary tribunal which will punish the crimes of November 1918. Then decapitated heads will roll in the sand.’

I want to be clear that this was not the first use of the expression “head will roll” as that phrase is sort of sprinkled throughout texts and newspapers prior to this.

One example is in the June 08, 1839 edition of The Columbia Democrat out of Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania from the Miscellaneous section. The short story has the title Anecdote of two Arab Chiefs.

November 9, 1946 Billboard
Before it's all over more heads will roll.

At this point, the phrase was being used to say that people were very upset or would become very upset… that they would be upset to the point of being unreasonable or to the point of seeking damages or damage from the other party.

December 1, 1961 Time
A.M.C. made it clear, too, that more heads would roll if the workers still failed to get the message.

May 27, 1972 National Observer (U.S.)
President Nixon decreed ‘heads will roll’ if ‘petty bureaucrats’ hinder Jaffe's war on narcotics.

There is something disturbing to me that people have used this saying that was popularized by Hitler so commonly. I honestly didn’t know until researching that this was how it was springboarded into regular usage. Perhaps it is from this extreme place that people found their meaning fully expressed. But still… disturbing.

2000 K. Charles Cruel Habitations
But there's going to be the most almighty kerfuffle when it all comes out. Fur will fly. Heads may roll.

Heads will roll and off with his/her/their head has made swift change over the last several decades. Like most idiomatic phrases, they are used playfully or simply as an expression of strong emotions.

A Quick Thank You

This week’s episode is sponsored by our Patrons!

We’ve been saying that Bunny Trails is free, but that’s actually not true. Bunny Trails is made available at no cost to you. But we are only able to make this content because of the awesome support of our Patrons, including Pat Rowe and Mary Lopez.

Because of Pat, Mary, and many others, you don’t have to pay a dime to enjoy Bunny Trails week after week. Shauna and I both volunteer our time, but there are still very real costs to making this show, including hosting, transcription services,
equipment, and more.

So, if you are in a financially stable place, and would like to support this
educational artform, we encourage you to check out the options at, or you can link to it from our website,

We also want to tell you about a couple of other word nerd or trivia wonk podcasts you should check out, including Your Brain on Facts, Lexitecture, Vocal Fries, and the Endless Knot.

Pop Culture and Modern Examples

Off With Their Heads is an American punk rock band formed in 2002. They are from Minneapolis, Minnesota, here in the United States.
This group falls into the genres of punk rock and melodic hardcore.

The song Heads Will Roll by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs was released in 2009. The lyrics begin
Off with your head
Dance 'til you're dead
Heads will roll
Heads will roll
Heads will roll
On the floor
Genres associated with this song include: New wave, Synth-pop, Dance-punk, Alternative dance, Electronica, New wave/post-punk

The musical Wonderland opened on Broadway in 2011 and features the song Off With Their Heads. My favorite section of lyrics reads:
Don't need a congress or a constitution
For its a forgone conclusion
That every problem has the same solution
Persuade crusade with a
Custom made renewable
Doable and unmisconstruable
Stainless steel blade
Off with their heads
It's the least i can do
Off with their heads
Is the only phrase that always rings true

Heads Will Roll is a Las Vegas Mobile Beauty Salon specializing in vintage style hair and makeup, weddings, and events.
The photos on their twitter feed are lovely. Lots of victory rolls… interesting take on the phrase.

 In 2018, the musical Six made it’s debut. Six is a modern retelling of the lives of the six wives of Henry VIII presented as a pop concert, as each of the wives take turns singing and telling their story to see who suffered the most due to Henry and should, therefore, become the group's lead singer.
In one of the featured songs, Don’t Lost Your Head, we find some rather fun lyrics:
Henry's out every night on the town
Just sleepin' around,
Like what the hell?
If that's how it's gonna be,
Maybe I'll flirt with a guy or three just to make him jel.
Henry finds out and he goes mental,
He screams and shouts like so judgemental.
"You damned witch"
Mate, just shut up.
I wouldn't be such a bi--- if you could get it up.

Uh oh,
Here we go.
Is that what you said?
And now he's going 'round like,
"Off with her head!"
Yea, I'm pretty sure he means it.
Seems it.

Wrap up...
I really love phrases that come from some historical event or are a reference to something in history… but this one is rather unpleasant. And I recognize that it’s about decapitation, so that probably should have been my first clue, but I was definitely surprised by some of the things I found. Part of me is encouraged by the fact that so many people use these extreme and horrible ideas as hyperbole to express minor frustrations. I want nothing more for my own children than that the worst things they face are not enough to even register on the scale labeled horrible. But in searching on social media and reading through news stories, the very real and sad truth that these phrases are not at all funny to many around the world hit home. We are not so far away from the travesties and terror of war and inhumane punishments. I hope that one day all of humanity is far enough removed from these behaviors that we only know them as history, as hyperbole.


Shauna:  That’s about all the time we’ve got this week. This week we want to ask a favor. This week, tell 1 person about the show. Think about the teacher, librarian, word nerd, or English major in your life and tell them about the show. You telling people about the show is the single biggest thing you can do to help your favorite podcasts.


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Thanks for joining us. We’ll talk to you again next week. And until then remember...

Words belong to their users.

Additional Sources Used Not already mentioned

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