Turk’s head

Scapegoat in Catalan is cap de turc, in Spanish cabeza de turco. I haven’t got the OED, but Hector Zimmerman says (Tres mil historias de frases y palabras) it comes from the French tête de turc and refers to the decapitable Aunt Sally mannequins used at fairs. Johann Georg Heck’s Iconographic Encyclopaedia of Science, Literature & Art (1860 American edition) suggests this is correct:

The [fifteenth century(?)] carrousel took the place of the public tournament, especially in France. It opened with a quadrille of horsemen, in bands of four to twelve knights, and commanded by a leader. Next followed the quintaine. The game consisted in marking a point on a tree or pillar, which must be struck with a lance at full speed. Another form of the sport was afterwards introduced. Wooden figures were placed on pegs so that they could turn round, and were to be hit in the face. Sometimes the figure to be struck was a Moor’s or Turk’s head.

The metaphor starts turning up regularly from the 1870s in Spanish and French on Google Print. (The first appearance of Spanish equivalents for the English–chivo emisario and chivo expiatorio–appears to be roughly contemporaneous with that of cabeza de turco, although there are noticeably less goats than Turks, as the European agriculture commissioner is wont to say.)

GP’s not big on testa di turco, but I think the practice may echo the Venetian Republic’s policy (Robinet, Dictionnaire universel (1783)) of paying their lads for the head of each Saracen brought in. (Either they didn’t kill very many or the logistics must have been interesting. The Sicilians used to practise with horses, allegedly.)


  • Notes and queries tells us in 1850 that in 1774 Johnson and Reynolds founded London’s Literary Club in the Turk’s Head coffee house in Greek Street.
  • Modern France’s most famous Turk’s head was not a Muslim but a Jew, Alfred Dreyfus.


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