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Rear its ugly head

Q From Arthur Hart: So many bad things today seem to be rearing their ugly heads! What was the first thing that reared its ugly head, and who first turned this colourfully descriptive phrase?

A This has indeed become a cliché. It refers to something that has made an unwelcome appearance or has become a troublesome subject that requires attention. This, for example, appeared in the Irish Independent on 5 July 2007: “Critics have noted the short battery life, an issue that has already reared its ugly head for the iPod.”

Though the Oxford English Dictionary’s first example is from 1946, the use of reared suggests it’s much older. Reared here means to set something upright or hold it in an elevated position. We don’t use the verb in that way any more, though we do speak of a horse rearing. Raised is a good equivalent and raised its ugly head is now often used instead. Reared its ugly head is not only a cliché, but also an idiom, preserving an outdated verbal usage.

Tracking it down, as with most clichés, has proved impossible. So far as I can discover, it dates from the nineteenth century. The first appearance I know of in that exact form is in The Defiance Democrat of Ohio of 28 June 1883: “And now the brief peace she had known was broken. The serpent had reared its ugly head amid her roses; it could be Paradise to her no more.” The earliest example of all is in the Adams Sentinel of Gettysburg of 29 January 1867: “He is still in the front rank of those who are determined that rebellion shall not again be able to rear its ugly head in this land, and that our government shall not again go into the hands of traitors.”

Might it be scriptural? It seems not, or at least it doesn’t appear in Genesis, where you might expect it to from the first quotation. But the simpler form reared its head has been around since the time of Milton, the middle of the seventeenth century. My guess is that some mute inglorious writer enlarged reared its head sometime in the nineteenth century to provide a satisfactory image of a disagreeable manifestation.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 4 Aug. 2007

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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.

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Last modified: 4 August 2007.