26 May 2011

“Shaking” one’s head = “nodding” one’s head?

Posted by dumpendebat

Not often, but on a regular basis (at least once or twice a year), I’ll hear someone refer to the act of nodding one’s head (by which I mean “moving one’s head up and down to indicate yes“) as “shaking” one’s head (by which I mean “moving one’s head side-to-side to indicate no“).

For example, I noticed it last night during the final time-out of the Bruins-Lightning game (Game Six of the NHL Eastern Conference finals): Boston’s coach was going over some plays on a little whiteboard, and the Versus Network announcer pointed out to the TV audience that we could see one of the players “shaking his head ‘yes’ — he’s on board with the coach’s plan,” or something along those lines. The player in question was, of course, nodding his head, not shaking it.

I first noticed this usage, which has always seemed extremely odd to me, twenty years ago, when I was having a (face-to-face) conversation with someone who told a third party (on the telephone) that I was “shaking [my] head.” His intention was to let the third party know that I agreed, but I was alarmed — I didn’t want the third party, who’d just been told I was “shaking” my head, to get the mistaken impression that I was disagreeing, when what I was actually doing was nodding my head (to show that I agreed). If I were talking on the phone and someone told me that an unseen third party was “shaking his head,” I’d assume that to mean that that person was indicating his/her disagreement with whatever we were talking about.

After the game last night, I played around on Google for a while to see if I could find examples of anybody else using the term shaking one’s head to mean nodding one’s head, but I couldn’t figure out the right search terms to use: all I could come up with were many discussions of cultures where those signs are reversed (apparently, the Bulgarians are among the only people on Earth who nod their heads to indicate “no” and shake their heads to indicate “yes”).


  1. Has anyone else ever noticed this: someone using the term “shaking one’s head” [which, to me and most other English speakers, means turning one’s head side-to-side several times] to mean “nodding one’s head” [i.e. moving one’s head up and down several times]?
  2. Do these people also say “nodding one’s head” [side-to-side] to mean “shaking one’s head” [up and down]? In other words, have they switched the two terms’ meanings around? Or do they use “shaking one’s head” to mean both “shaking” and “nodding”? My gut feeling is that it’s the latter, but I have no proof of this; all I can say is that I have never actually heard anyone say “nodding his head” to mean “moving his head side-to-side,” but I have heard “shaking his head” to mean “moving his head up and down” many times.
  3. Could it be a regional-usage thing, maybe? Is it just that there is some part of America where people say “shaking one’s head” to mean both “shaking” and “nodding”? Or is it that certain individuals just say it this way, for obscure reasons of their own?

I would love feedback on this one, readers, if you have anything to say about this.

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