tail » tale

Chiefly in:   make heads or tales of sth.

Variant(s):  make head and tale of sth.

Classification: English – idiom-related

Spotted in the wild:

  • We will be able to read and write SMS messages, which even the literary gurus like Shakespeare and Milton couldn’t make head and tale of them if they were still alive. (link)
  • everytime i watch dune i wonder how anyone could make heads or tales of the movie without having read the book. (plastic.com forum, May 22, 2005)
  • Part of the reason I decided to chart this time around was to see if I could make heads or tales of the way the girls were conceived. (TheLaborOfLove.com, August 02, 2004)
  • Trying to make head and tale of the post they had sent me (Speedy will never be the brightest bulb unfortunatly) I PMed back expressing my hate for not only SonAmy but also there Zealot behaviour. (sonicanime.net forum, Sep 19, 2004)
  • She remains an outsider as a detached viewer of the hullabaloo but plunges into this commotion, to make head and tale of the story, so that She comprehends its impacts and implications. (link)
  • Sometimes a helping hand is all you need to make heads or tales of a tough assignment. (speedypapers.com, academic cheating service)

See also tale » tail.

The misspelling _tale_ for _tail_ (_”now take the fish by the head and tale”_) is also very common in contexts where a semantic reinterpretation looks unlikely.

Personal anecdote: I once was advised by a native speaker of English to avoid _make head and tail of sth._ because of the “sexual connotation”.

[Entry edited following Ben Zimmer’s comment. I wonder if there is a BrE/AmE split — I had definitely read the form _make head and tail of sth_ before. CW.]

| link | entered by Chris Waigl, 2005/07/19 |


  1. 1

    Commentary by Ben Zimmer , 2005/07/19 at 2:09 pm

    The more common expression is make heads or tails of. Google finds about 3,000 hits for make heads or tales of and about 500 for make head or tale of.

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