What does It Mean When Someone Says They are Going to "Hit the Head"?

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick

There's no delicate way to put this: if someone says he is going to hit the head, it means he plans on using the restroom. The expression comes from navy and coast guard jargon for bathroom. Sailors, marines and Coast Guard members call their facilities heads, while land-based military personnel call them latrines. Naval ships actually have the word head stenciled on the watertight doors leading to the cramped but serviceable facilities.

Naval ships have tight quarters inside.
Naval ships have tight quarters inside.

The origin of this phrase can be traced back to ancient sailing vessels. Sailors who needed to relieve themselves would make their way to a designated area under the deck near the bow or front of the ship. This area was selected for several reasons. First of all, the odors would be dissipated into the air before reaching the main living and work areas. Secondly, the constant spray of ocean water would act as a natural sanitizer and keep the area relatively clean.

"Hit the head" refers to using the bathroom.
"Hit the head" refers to using the bathroom.

Since this area was also close to the carved figurehead on the bow, it became known informally as the head. The term stuck even as shipbuilders incorporated indoor plumbing and other modern conveniences to military ships. Generations of sailors have since adopted the phrase hit the head as a euphemism, and eventually the term became part of popular culture as these men and women assimilated back into society.

The phrase is just one example of military jargon entering popular usage. There are a number of other naval terms and expressions that may sound very familiar to land-bound ears, such as the word wallop. It is said that King Henry VIII sent an Admiral Wallop to France in order to avenge the French burning of the city of Brighton. The resulting damage to the French coast was so severe that Wallop's name became synonymous with the use of overwhelming force.

Other familiar phrases with a naval origin include hunky-dory, supposedly a corruption of Honki-Dori, a Japanese street known for its hospitality towards sailors on leave. A slang word for office gossip, scuttlebutt, is also said to come from naval history. Sailors stored their drinking water in stoppered barrels called scuttlebutts, or simply butts. Time spent around these water barrels would often involve the retelling of rumors or other bits of ship's news.

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick

A regular wiseGEEK contributor, Michael enjoys doing research in order to satisfy his wide-ranging curiosity about a variety of arcane topics. Before becoming a professional writer, Michael worked as an English tutor, poet, voice-over artist, and DJ.

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Discussion Comments


Never heard such tosh. The word head comes from Royal Naval slang. The Heads. Naval toilets had batwing doors. When the toilets were full one could see a line of heads.


I think that the reason so much sailor jargon has permeated our vocabulary is because sailors spend a lot of time at sea, isolated from society, and the men build close relationships. Like other tight knit groups of friends, they develop their own slang. The sailors are more likely to generate this strange jargon than people back at home living in the same world as everyone else.

Also, since people don't like to say they are going to the bathroom, they'll adopt any slang for it they can. Take a dump, see a man about a house, drop the kids off at the pool, lay some rope. You get the idea.


I find it fascinating that sailors have had so much influence on general society for such a long time. It amazes me that all of these terms and phrases have become so popular, just from sailors going into society and using them.

Does this mean that the percentage of sailors in society used to be quite large? Is that why their lingo was so easy to spread?


I love learning about the origins of different sayings that have become popular. I'm always wondering why we say the things we do, because a lot of it doesn't make a bit of sense if you don't know where it came from.

I didn't realize that so many popular saying have come from sailors. I've read a lot of historical books, so I could kind of guess the meaning of hitting the head. But I've never heard of how we got the term "wallop." It's all very interesting!

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