And now, an unnecessary moment with the English language

Consider the phrase “Off the top of my head,” as in “Off the top of my head, I’ve eaten 13 donuts.” I understand what it implies and why we use it; it’s an efficient, colloquial way to suggest that we cannot be certain if what we are about to utter next is technically correct. Maybe it was 6 donuts.  Maybe I ate 2 dozen, and am now so disoriented that it would be foolish for me to claim to know exactly how many I consumed.  

But like so many other English idioms, when taken at face value, it can be unnecessarily misleading.  As someone who works around many for whom English is their second (or even third) language, I feel a deep and abiding responsibility to honor the art of communication whenever possible.

(As a side-note, this phrase is also a bit odd in that it seems like a throwback to the Dark Ages, when we thought that human anatomy involved little more than a series of tubes and gears, that the human heart was a box within which lived a tiny mouse beating a drum, and that a person’s memory was directly tied to how lush their hair was. Or something along those lines.)

We should instead, when we find ourselves in situations where we need to make it clear we’re not 100% sure of the validity of what we’re about to say, lead with something like, “I’m not sure, but according to data accessed from my pre-frontal cortex, I MIGHT have eaten too many donuts.”   Sure, it doesn’t have the same ring. But it’s literally correct, and that’s a good thing.

If we are determined to use the phrase “Off the top of my head”, and we want to honor our non-native English speaker friends, the following may be more appropriate:

  • “That bird just stole my fedora – right off the top of my head!
  • “When I was in Little League, many a baseball ricocheted off the top of my head.”
  • “Can someone please remove the rabid ferret off of the top of my head?”
  • “I would never allow anyone to hit a golf ball off the top of MY head!”
  • “Every day I wake up and discover that I am losing hair off the top of my head.”

Just a few suggestions. According to data accessed from my pre-frontal cortex. (Oh, this is going to catch on!)



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