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Q From John Richardson: Where did the truckers’ term, running deadhead, with no load, come from?

A Back in the early part of the nineteenth century the term dead head (at first two words) was a theatrical term for a person who had been admitted without charge, perhaps because they had performed some service such as putting up a poster advertising the event. It was an obvious enough formation, as they were a dead weight, not contributing to the expenses of the production (and, as I can attest from experience, such patrons are often less responsive than the paying customers; a house full of paper can be very hard to play to).

It’s just conceivable it could have been a translation of a well-known Latin tag, caput mortuum, literally “death’s head” or skull. This was used by alchemists as their name for the residue in a flask after distillation was complete. Later it was used for any worthless residue.

The first example known is from a publication called The Spirit of the Times of January 1841: “The house on Tuesday was filled as far as $300 could fill, barring ‘the dead heads’ ”. The same idea turns up in a term of the time for a sponger or loafer, for example, somebody who sat by the stove in a tavern, enjoying the warmth without buying a drink. The verb to dead head followed soon afterwards.

From the 1850s, the usage was extended to the idea of a person who travelled on some vehicle — a train or steamboat, say — without paying, either free-loading or on a complimentary basis. That was further extended to refer to a train crew who were travelling as passengers, either to start work somewhere else, or perhaps to go home. I’m told this usage is still common among cabin crews in the modern aviation business.

This idea had been extended by the end of the nineteenth century to refer to a vehicle (at first usually a train) that was travelling without cargo or passengers, a trip that — like a non-paying member of an audience — was making no contribution to revenue. Later still it shifted slightly to refer to a road vehicle similarly making a journey without any load.

You might think that the theatrical term had come from the idea of a dead flower head, or the action of deadheading one. But this is — perhaps surprisingly — a very modern form, not recorded before the 1950s. Similarly, the term was applied to a dull or lazy person, one who contributes nothing to an enterprise, only in the early years of the twentieth century, well after the theatrical and transport senses had become well established.

Deadhead, for a loyal fan of the long-running musical group The Grateful Dead, derives from one in particular of a set of sixties words in -head, pothead, but with self-mocking undertones of this last usage; it would be nice to think there was a conscious link between it and the original theatrical sense.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 26 Aug. 2000

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

World Wide Words is copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
This page URL: http://www.worldwidewords.org/qa/qa-dea2.htm
Last modified: 26 August 2000.