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The English idiom, “keep your head,” refers to a person remaining calm. This phrase can be used as an imperative idiom, where someone tells someone else to keep his or her head. It can also be used as a self-reference, for example, if an English speaker says, “I’ve got to keep my head.”
The figurative meaning for this idiom relies on the idea that the head is the source of rationality, or that more specifically, the brain controls the body and its responses to outside stimuli. An alternate form of this phrase is “keep your head on,” which can be changed into yet another phrase, “don’t lose your head.” All of these phrases are used to tell a person to remain calm.
For English language beginners, it’s important to note that the phrase can be used for either short term or long term situations. For example, an English speaker who is facing continual challenges in a stressful job may say “I’ve got to keep my head, and wait for another opportunity to come around.” In a shorter term situation, someone who is holding three ringing cell phones might say “I’ve got to keep my head and prioritize this.”
In addition to the above imperative or self-referential uses, the phrase can also be used as a description of someone’s behavior after the fact. Often, this form of the phrase is used to commend someone. For instance, someone who has evaluated a person’s success in a job might say that the individual “can really keep (his or her) head” in the face of challenges. This can be part of a formal spoken or written commendation, or a more informal comment on the endurance of an individual.
Although other tenses can be applied to the phrase, some of them are not as likely as others. It’s unusual for an English speaker to use the phrase in the future tense, for example, to ask someone, “will you keep your head?” It’s also somewhat uncommon to use the phrase in the continuous, where an English speaker might ask “are you keeping your head?” In general, the past and present tenses are most commonly used with this idiom.
Another key tip for understanding the idea of the phrase, "keep your head," is in recognizing directional prepositions that modify the meaning of the phrase. For example, to keep one’s head up means remaining cheerful despite challenges. To keep one’s head down means to remain inconspicuous. Neither one of these should be confused with the basic idea of keeping one’s head as described above.
"Keeping your head" can still mean don't do anything that will lead you into a dangerous situation. For instance, if someone pulls out in front of you while you're driving, "keeping your head" means you don't try to retaliate.
It can also mean acting calmly in a potentially dangerous situation. If someone is following you, rather than "losing your head" and running or whatever, you instead drive to the police station if you're in the car, or go to an occupied area if you're outside.
Keeping your head is interchangeable with "keeping your wits about you." It usually means calm action in a chaotic situation, rather than doing something stupid which could have serious repercussions.
As with many English idioms, this one has a dark past. It refers to those times in the past when rash behavior could get one arrested, tried and executed -- by beheading. So "keep your head" meant, "Don't say/do anything that might get you killed."
This, of course, was primarily the case in the English court, when a monarch might decide that a subject -- usually a nobleman -- was getting a bit too dangerous and might possibly be trying to overthrow the throne. There are numerous examples in English history of monarchs getting rid of rivals or traitors by beheading them. A prominent courtier who made it through his or her life without ever arousing the suspicion of the monarch was either canny or lucky.