head-scratching

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English[edit]

Alternative forms[edit]

Etymology[edit]

A drawing of a man scratching his head, from The Evening Ledger (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA; 4 May 1916)

head + scratching, from the fact that many people scratch the side of their head when confused.

Pronunciation[edit]

Adjective[edit]

head-scratching (comparative more head-scratching, superlative most head-scratching)

  1. (idiomatic) Confusing, perplexing, puzzling.
    • 1849 June, Michael South, “The Peace Campaigns of Ensign Faunce. [Part III. Chapter XIV.]”, in Fraser’s Magazine for Town and Country, volume XXXIX, number CCXXXIV, London: John W[illiam] Parker, West Strand, OCLC 173347075, page 679, column 1:
      He became for a short time delirious, in consequence of attempting to comprehend the works of Mr. Nebulous, in which the English language is exhibited casting of summersets, with many prancings to and fro, before earnest-gazing, head-scratching readers, in murkiest obscuration, marvel stricken, with maddest humour and grinning contortions, heels-over-head, wondrous!
    • 2009, Frederick C. Klein, For the Love of the Mets: An A-to-Z Primer for Mets Fans of All Ages, Chicago, Ill.: Triumph Books, OCLC 794292381:
      Yogi Berra is best known as a Hall of Fame catcher with the 1950s Yankees and for spouting head-scratching malapropisms such as "Ninety per cent of the game is half mental," but he also was a solid baseball man with good managerial instincts.
    • 2015, Mark Adams, “Amateur Hour”, in Meet Me in Atlantis: My Obsessive Quest to Find the Sunken City, New York, N.Y.: Dutton, →ISBN, page 39:
      For someone who professed such deep respect for numbers, Plato certainly used some head-scratching ones in his Atlantis story. The dates don't match up even remotely with ancient history.

Synonyms[edit]

Noun[edit]

head-scratching (plural head-scratchings)

  1. (idiomatic) Confusion.
    • 1869 April, Carl Bernard, “Milly’s Bossy”, in Ballou’s Monthly Magazine, volume XXIX, number 4 (number 172 overall), Boston, Mass.: Office American Union, Flag of Our Union, and Novelette, No. 63 Congress Street, OCLC 917578037, pages 394–395:
      [] Milly got out of her basket to reconsider the matter. It took some deliberation and head scratching to decide the best method; []
    • 1936, Leo Huberman, “‘Gold, Greatness, and Glory’”, in Man’s Worldly Goods: The Story of the Wealth of Nations, New York, N.Y.: Monthly Review Press, OCLC 55876554, page 134:
      You remember what a lot of head-scratching the kings had to go through in order to raise money. When there was no extensive and well-developed system of taxation, they were never sure of getting enough cash where they needed it when they needed it.
    • 2010, Frederick [W.] Turner, The Go-between: A Novel of the Kennedy Years, Boston, Mass.: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, →ISBN, page 293:
      [O]ne morning I just started writing about how Judy met JFK in the winter of '60, and it seemed to go pretty well – better, anyway, than the false starts and head scratchings that were all I had to show thus far.
    • 2011, Richard [T.] Neer, “Poussin’s Useless Treasures”, in Herbert L[eon] Kessler and David Nirenberg, editors, Judaism and Christian Art: Aesthetic Anxieties from the Catacombs to Colonialism, Philadelphia, Pa.: University of Pennsylvania Press, →ISBN, page 347:
      It is possible to spend a long time looking at this inscription. An informal survey of scholars at the University of Chicago, all versed in Hebrew, suggests that the inscription is at once enticing and frustrating, not quite nonsensical enough for immediate dismissal, nor sufficiently cogent actually to yield a reading. Instead, "mystère admirable," it invites hours of fruitless headscratching. The beholder, in this situation, winds up in much the same situation as the Pharisees in the picture: pointing, puzzling, and conversing.
    • 2016 October 24, Owen Gibson, “Is the unthinkable happening – are people finally switching the football off?”, in The Guardian[1], London, archived from the original on 10 January 2017:
      And yet, arresting figures suggesting a decline in early season ratings have prompted an outbreak of soul‑searching at those broadcasters and head‑scratching among analysts.

Synonyms[edit]

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