Know your English — What is the meaning and origin of 'heads up'?

September 10, 2013 01:11 am | Updated June 02, 2016 10:44 am IST

What is the meaning and origin of 'heads up'?

(Geetha Durairajan, Hyderabad)

This American expression has several different meanings. One is to warn someone that something is going to happen, and that he needs to be prepared for whatever may come his way. The expression is also frequently used in everyday contexts to refer to someone who is wide-awake and alert.

*We got the heads up about the Chairman's proposed visit.

*Surprisingly, our team played a very heads up game.

Nobody is really sure about the origin of the expression. According to one theory, a person who is wide awake and alert usually keeps his head up to ensure that he is able to see what is happening around him. Someone who feels sleepy or drowsy, on the other hand, always keeps dropping his head. According to another theory, the expression ‘heads up’was used in the 19th century to mean ‘straighten up’ or ‘keep your head up’. Some believe that the modern use of the expression comes from the ‘heads-up display screen’ that gives pilots vital information about their aircraft. In the past, since the screen was installed close to the windshield, the pilot was able to monitor the readings without taking his eyes off the flight path. He was able to do both provided he had his head up.

Is it okay to say, ‘She bought an expensive pair of cooling glasses’?

(N. Naresh, Chennai)

Indians frequently refer to the dark-lensed glasses that they wear in order to protect their eyes from the bright sun as ‘cooling glasses’. Native speakers of English do not use this term, and will probably have a problem figuring out what we mean by it. ‘Shades’, ‘dark glasses’, ‘sunglasses’, and ‘sun specs’ are some of the terms that they use instead of ‘cooling glasses’.

*Sathvika, as usual, looked cool in her shades/sun glasses.

*The villain in the film was always wearing a baseball cap and dark glasses.

How is the word ‘nonchalant’ pronounced?

(J Vivek, Bangalore)

The first syllable is pronounced like the word ‘non’ and the following ‘ch’ is like the ‘sh’ in ‘ship’, ‘shoot’ and ‘sheet’. The ‘a’ in the second and third syllables is pronounced like the ‘a’ in ‘china’. One way of pronouncing this French word is ‘NON-she-lent’ with the stress on the first syllable. It comes from the Latin ‘non’ being ‘not’ and ‘calere’ meaning ‘be hot’. Someone who is nonchalant looks calm and relaxed; he is a ‘cool’ person. The word can be used to show disapproval as well; it can be used to suggest that the person shows no interest or enthusiasm about things happening around him.

*The star got out of his car, and gave a nonchalant wave to his adoring fans.

*Hema gave her resignation letter, and walked out of the room nonchalantly.

Is it okay to say, ‘The cardboards you bought yesterday are no good’?

(C. Kavita, Kanpur)

Being an uncountable noun, the word ‘cardboard’ is always followed by a singular verb. The plural of cardboard is ‘cardboard’.

*The cardboard you bought is not particularly good.

*We won't be able to use the cardboard. It is damp.


“Flattery is all right so long as you don't inhale.”Adlai Stevenson

S. U

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