Can’t Make Heads or Tails About It

Last Friday I wrote on “it’s all Greek to me”, which deals with not knowing anything about a subject. In my research, I came across “can’t make heads or tails” about something or someone. Between the two, the second idiom is used more frequently than the first, although the second has a negative connotation.


This Polish Grosz coin head has nothing to do with this idiom (as it is a head of a coin, not the tail).

Or this tail of a whale.


This phrase has everything to do with understanding, or rather, not understanding what a person is about or what their intentions are. In most circumstances, when we use this idiom/phrase, we are using it negatively. For instance, you meet this person and this person does not follow your (or societies) values and the person sees the world different from the majority of people. You want to get to know the person because you enjoy the companionship of people who are just a bit “off-center” but the person is just hard to understand. No matter how hard you try to be friends, you simply can’t — you can’t make heads or tails of the person’s ideas on how he or she conducts his or her life.

Another example. Once, long ago, there was this statistics instructor at the university that everyone was talking about. He knew his statistics but he simply had a hard time conveying the lessons to the students. Although the students liked him as a person, they could not make heads or tails about the information from his lectures. (Not a good thing if it is a required course!) In other words, they did not understand a word from his way of explanation. Another example, I once had a Shakespeare course where the instructor did not hold lectures, we did not discuss the play and we only had one grade at the end of the course where we had to fill in the blanks of lines from Shakespeare’s plays. I could not make heads or tails how this professor could justify passing or failing any of us. (Note: he did retire after the course when everyone complained to the dean).

When you use “it’s all Greek to me” you simply do not understand, it’s like someone is speaking a foreign language that you are not accustomed to. When you use “can’t make heads or tails about it” you are negatively talking about someone or something. It’s not that you don’t understand, it’s that you do not understand how that person or idea is being conveyed. It’s my only hope that you can make heads or tails from this explanation.

Otherwise, have a great week. I’ll post again on Friday…


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Filed under idioms, phrases

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