• figurehead •
Part of Speech: Noun
Meaning: 1. A carved figure on the prow of a ship, usually a scantily clad female, often a mermaid. 2. A person in a nominal leadership position without real authority.
Notes: This is a great 'tip-of-the-tongue' stimulus; you know, that sense of having a word on the tip of your tongue, but not being able to recall it. What is the girl on the prow of a ship called? Well, now I've told you. A figurehead on a ship appears to be more important than she really is, sailing out front of everyone else on the ship. That describes the other type of figurehead, too.
In Play: The figure on the prow of a sailing vessel is the initial sense of today's Good Word: "Have you seen Al Batross's new sailboat? It has a Bugs Bunny figurehead!" These days, though, we hear the word used in the metaphorical sense more often: "Rodney is just a figurehead coach; the real coaching is done by his assistants."
Word History: Today's Good Word originates in Latin figura "a shape, form, figure", again, by way of French. This word comes from fingere "to form, shape", from Proto-Indo-European dheigh- "to form, build, knead". This same root came directly (no borrowing) to English via the Germanic languages as dough. Head in Old English was heafod, a distant cousin of Latin caput "head". The Latin word came to Italian as capo "(Mafia) head, chief". Finally, kerchief contains the remnants of caput. Caput reduced to chef and ultimately to chief in French, two other words we helped ourselves to. Kerchief originated in French as a compound, Old French couvrechef, comprising couvrir "to cover" + chef "head". Anglo-Norman reduced this word to courchief and English did the rest.
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