King Charles' head

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English[edit]

Etymology[edit]

King Charles I was beheaded in 1649, but the allusion is literary, rather than historical.

Mr. Dick, in Charles Dickens' David Copperfield, lives with David's aunt, Betsy Trotwood. David establishes with Betsy Trotwood that Mr. Dick has been trying to write "a Memorial about his [i.e. Mr. Dick's] own history", but that the subject of King Charles' head keeps intruding into the text. Mr. Dick uses a discarded manuscript, with its references to King Charles' head, to create a "great kite" that he flies with David as an expression of their friendship. The narrative, written in David's voice, comments that "it was certain that the Memorial never would be finished".

Betsy Trotwood discusses Mr. Dick's affliction with the young David:

"Did he say anything to you about King Charles the First, child?"
"Yes, aunt."
"Ah!" said my aunt, rubbing her nose as if she were a little vexed. "That's his allegorical way of expressing it. He connects his illness with great disturbance and agitation, naturally, and that's the figure, or the simile, or whatever it's called, which he chooses to use."

The allusion was picked up by other writers and had become common by the 1890s.

Noun[edit]

King Charles' head (plural King Charles' heads)

  1. An obsession, especially one that keeps intruding irrelevantly into other matters.
    • 1850, Charles Dickens, David Copperfield
      'I can't make it out,' said Mr. Dick, shaking his head. 'There's something wrong, somewhere. However, it was very soon after the mistake was made of putting some of the trouble out of King Charles's head into my head, that the man first came. I was walking out with Miss Trotwood after tea, just at dark, and there he was, close to our house.'
    • 1927, Dorothy Parker, "The Socialist Looks at Literature", December 10, 1927
      Upton Sinclair* is his own King Charles' head. He cannot keep himself out of his writings, try though he may; or, by this time, try though he doesn't.
    • 1949, William Baring Pemberton, William Cobbett, page 108:
      It is characteristic of Cobbett that he could always be relied on to produce conjuror-like from any subject one of his many King Charles' heads.

Synonyms[edit]