Head upon shoulder

U 10.657-8: Are you trying to imitate your uncle John [...] head upon shoulder?

The expression “head upon shoulders” has nothing to do with the old proverb about a wise (or old) head upon young shoulders. Simon is simply saying "Dilly, don't hunch your shoulders so that your neck disappears from view and it looks like your head is set immediately upon your shoulders." Later Stephen notices "Dilly's high shoulders and shabby dress" (U 10.855).

“Head upon shoulders” (with “shoulders” in the plural) is a phrase heard occasionally in the nineteenth century, but it seems not to have survived long into the twentieth. The following are two earlier usages:

The first witness brought forward in defence of "Holy Church" was no less a personage than Henry M'Loughlin, a perfect specimen of "head upon shoulders", and of the mature age of twelve years.

Belfast-Newsletter (1857), 23 February

Had I been left to myself I should certainly have mistaken it, for near it was another gigantic block resting lightly on its base, like a head upon shoulders, which had much more the appearance of a rocking-stone than the one which moved.

Philip Winter de Quetteville Pardon of Guingamp (1870), ch. 10 p. 135

This seems to be another case of Joyce reaching back into the recent past to find an expression that suited his text.

Eamonn Finn

Search by keyword (within this site): Phrases