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What Does "Heads Will Roll" Mean?

By Gregory Hanson
Updated May 23, 2024
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The short phrase “heads will roll” is an idiomatic expression in the English language. It is typically employed when discussing extremely serious consequences that might befall someone who has failed spectacularly. This idiom is widely-used, but has taken on particular importance in the realm of business, where it often refers to employees losing their jobs as a punishment for failure. The idiom does not generally need to refer to a specific individual or group of people.

Saying that “heads will roll” evokes images of execution at the hands of a headsman or the guillotine. The expression is meant to convey that same sense of grievous consequences for heinous crimes or serious betrayals. The phrase does not actually refer to executions. It simply borrows the symbolism of the headsman’s axe as a form of dramatic emphasis.

This phrase is commonly used when it is apparent that some sort of misdeed or failure has taken place, but the actual culprits have not yet been identified. A newspaper might proclaim that “heads will roll when officials uncover who was responsible for sabotaging the city’s sanitation plant." In such usage, the phrase serves both to indicate that significant consequences are likely and to drive home the severity of the action or failure that merits punishment.

Men and women in business are apt to use the phrase with a more narrow and specific meaning. In the business world, the direst punishment typically available to upper management is termination of employment. When this phrase is used in a business context, therefore, it most often refers to the possibility that employees will be fired. It usually retains the implication that serious failures have taken place but may be used in situations where some employees are due to be let go for other reasons. In such instances the emphasis of the phrase is more on the severity of the consequences than on any specific failings.

Use of this phrase does not typically imply that any specific people will be punished. It might be used to refer to the collective misdeeds of an entire group of people. For example, “Heads will roll in accounting when management sees these numbers.” This construction is often used without specific reference to any group of people whatsoever. In such instances, as in the above example of the sanitation disaster, it serves to emphasize the seriousness of the failings that occurred and to indicate that punishment will be forthcoming but does not provide any information about the identity of the guilty party.

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Discussion Comments
By donasmrs — On Jul 19, 2012

I was curious about what this idiom meant after I heard the song "Heads Will Roll" by Yeah Yeah Yeahs. I really like this band and this single is pretty cool.

Now that I know the meaning, the lyrics of the song make more sense. Although the image that came to my head is not very pretty. It makes me imagine a beheaded head rolling around! Pretty awful! But I guess it's a good metaphor for the kind of consequences that might follow in that kind of situation.

By bear78 — On Jul 18, 2012

@burcinc-- My English teacher said that this idiom came about during the French Revolution, because many people were beheaded then. When the masses revolted and took power, they punished the King and everyone who worked for him by beheading them. So many people were beheaded that after the Revolution, when a similar uprising happened, they used to say "heads will roll."

I didn't know about the origin of this idiom before my teacher explained it in class. But I assumed that it was pretty similar to "the axe is going to fall" which basically means the same thing.

Does anyone know any other idioms that mean the same thing as "heads will roll?"

By burcinc — On Jul 18, 2012

I guess this idiom dates back to the time when serious mistakes were often punished with execution. Even the most serious mistakes are not punished with execution anymore, except in the case of some states where there is a crime like murder. I think a long time ago, punishments were more severe and I'm sure authorities could order executions more easily.

Even though the meaning is not used literally anymore, it's interesting how we've carried on this idiom and continue to use it often.

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