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Brandon Robshaw: English Usage #9


Recently I have been re-reading one of my old William books, William – In Trouble (and, by the way, they are called William books, not Just William books). In the wonderful story "William Among the Poets" I came across this sentence: "Their four bullet heads peered furtively over the window sill of each downstairs window."

Bullet heads. That's an interesting expression, isn't it? You don't hear it so quite often these days, but once it was in common usage. Richmal Crompton uses it on several occasions, and so too does Frank Richards in his Greyfriars stories. It even appears in a Beatles song, "The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill": "He's the all-American bullet-headed Saxon mother's son". Bullet Head  is also the title of a 2017 heist movie.

But what does it mean, exactly? My Compact Oxford English Dictionary (1994) defines bullet-head as "a. a head round like a bullet; b. a person with such a head; in U.S, fig. A 'pig-headed' obstinate person". Online sources such as Collins, Merrion Webster and the Free Online Dictionary give similar meanings. But I don't actually think this does justice to the word. It might suggest something about the shape – small and roundly pointed – and maybe in America it does suggest obstinacy, but to me it also has connotations of hardness, toughness, with a suggestion of vigour and energy; perhaps not over-burdened with thought. I think you'd be more likely to use it of a boy than a girl; and also of a boy rather than a man. I feel if someone had referred to me as "bullet-headed" when I was a kid I'd have felt vaguely flattered; but if it were said of me now I would be rather annoyed.

Dr Brandon Robshaw lectures for the Open University in Philosophy, Creative Writing and Children’s Literature. He has written several children’s books including a philosophical YA novel, The Infinite Powers of Adam Gowers. He and his family starred in BBC2’s Back in Time for Dinner. You can find his website here.


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