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The meaning and origin of the expression: Heads will roll

Heads will roll

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What's the meaning of the phrase 'Heads will roll'?

The expression 'heads will roll' is the promise or prediction that people responsible for some failure or disaster will be dismissed or otherwise held to account.

What's the origin of the phrase 'Heads will roll'?

Heads will rollThe phrase 'heads will roll' came about, of course, as an allusion to decapitated heads rolling after execution by guillotine or axe.

It would be nice to be able to present a use of the expression that dates from the time of the French Revolution or Tudor England. Sadly, there isn't one and the earliest uses of the phrase come much later.

Heads will roll'Heads will roll' is widely thought to have been first uttered by Adolf Hitler. He did indeed make such a threat, which was widely reported in British and American newspaper, as in this citation from the English newspaper The Daily Herald, September 1930:

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."

However, Hitler was far from the first to use the phrase, which had been in use for almost a century in 1930. The expression can't have been very widely used at that time though - several newspaper of the day reported the expression 'heads will roll' to have been coined by Hitler - hardly a mistake they would have made if they had been familiar with it.

The first example that I can find of it in print is in the US newspaper The Indiana Herald, January 1858:

Let it [the Lecompton Constitution] be treated as the people of England treated the tyrannous rescripts of the Stuarts... Your friends in office will be led to the block. Let them go! Their official heads will roll on the ground. Let them roll!

Note that the above citation refers indirectly to the heads of the Stuart monarchs rolling. The writer was probably referring to King Charles I of England, who was beheaded by an axe, not by guillotine as is usually associated with 'heads will roll'.

It isn't until the 1940s that 'heads will roll' appears in print with its current figurative meaning, that is, one which refers to dismissal from office and makes no reference to execution. These first surface in the USA, as in this piece from The Dayton Herald, May 1944:

One of the biggest scandals is being hushed up in the hooch industry, with top execs being fired because of their alleged black-market activities. More heads will roll when the story breaks.

It is quite likely that, although he didn't coin 'heads will roll ', the use of 'heads will roll in the sand' by Hitler in a widely reported speech gave the impetus for the phrase to become commonplace in the 1940s and beyond.

See other phrases that were coined in the USA.

Gary Martin - the author of the website.

By Gary Martin

Gary Martin is a writer and researcher on the origins of phrases and the creator of the Phrase Finder website. Over the past 26 years more than 700 million of his pages have been downloaded by readers. He is one of the most popular and trusted sources of information on phrases and idioms.

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