figurehead

/fig"yeuhr hed'/, n.
1. a person who is head of a group, company, etc., in title but actually has no real authority or responsibility: Most modern kings and queens are figureheads.
2. Naut. a carved full-length figure or bust built into the bow of a sailing ship.
[1755-65; FIGURE + HEAD]

* * *

Ornamental symbol or figure placed on a prominent part of a ship, usually at the bow.

It could be a religious symbol, a national emblem, or a figure symbolizing the ship's name. The custom of decorating a ship probably began in ancient Egypt or India and was followed by the Chinese, Phoenicians, Greeks, and Romans. As early as 1000 BC, the stem-and sternposts were carved and painted to distinguish one ship from another. The Vikings built ships with high bows and a projecting stem bearing a menacing figurehead, similar to the ships of William I the Conqueror as seen in the Bayeux Tapestry. Figureheads have historically varied in size from 18 in. (45 cm) to 8–9 ft (2.5 m). They remained popular until after World War I.

Figurehead from the Oseberg ship, Viking, about AD 800; in the Museum of National Antiquities, ...

© Universitetets Oldsaksamling, Oslo, Norway; photographer, Eirik Irgens Johnsen

* * *

 ornamental symbol or figure formerly placed on some prominent part of a ship, usually at the bow. A figurehead could be a religious symbol, a national emblem, or a figure symbolizing the ship's name.

      The custom of decorating a vessel probably began in ancient Egypt or India, where an eye was painted on either side of the prow, presumably in the belief that the eyes would help a vessel find its way safely over the water. The custom was followed by the Chinese (who painted eyes on their river junks), the Phoenicians (Phoenicia), the Greeks, and the Romans.

      The ships of the ancient (Egypt, ancient) Egyptians, Phoenicians, Greeks, and early Romans were constructed with heavy vertical timbers at the bow and stern to which the side planking was attached. These stemposts and sternposts protruded well above the hull, and their prominent and semierect position and form created a focal point of interest and a shape obviously suited for decoration. As early as 1000 BC, the stem- and sternposts were carved and painted to distinguish one ship from another, and at least one class of vessel used an identifying symbol: a falcon or a falcon's eye generally appeared on the bows of Egyptian funeral barges of the Nile River. Although the oculi were the most popular symbols used by early sailors, some figureheads were fashioned for the purpose of terrorizing less-civilized tribes. The Egyptians probably originated the practice of using religious symbols; other Mediterranean peoples extended this practice by using carvings and paintings of their principal deity to identify the vessel with its city-state. The Carthaginians, for example, often used a carving of Amon, the Athenians a statue of Athena. When the prow was developed as a weapon for ramming and piercing an enemy vessel, the stem lost its prominence and the so-called ram was decorated instead. One Athenian vessel of about 500 BC had the entire ram carved in the shape of a boar's head. The use of the prow as a battering ram necessarily lowered the prominent bow features of the ship, and so greater emphasis was instead placed on decorating the stern. This trend was carried to an extreme by the Romans at the height of their naval power, when their ships were distinguished by a very high sternpost carved to sweep up and around in graceful curves terminating, for example, in the gilded head of a swan.

      Along the more blustery northwest coast of Europe, skilled sailors such as the Vikings continued to build their ships with high bows and a projecting stem. The figurehead of the Oseberg ship of about AD 800 is a menacing dragon with head upreared. The ships of William I the Conqueror in the Bayeux Tapestry are similar to those of his Norse ancestors, but in general the decorative symbols reflect the spread of the Christian church.

      In the 13th and 14th centuries, a boarding platform was attached forward and projected out over the stem. With this type of construction, the figurehead practically disappeared. Gradually the boarding platform was moved back until it formed the forecastle; when the beakhead was added in the 16th century, it became the natural place for a figurehead. Gradually the beakhead was reduced in size and moved back under the bowsprit until just the figurehead remained. During this period, the fashions in figureheads varied from carvings of saints to national emblems, such as the lion and the unicorn, to a simple scroll and a billethead, and finally to a carved representation of the person for whom the vessel was named or of a female relative. Historically, figureheads have varied in size from 18 inches (45 cm) for small heads and busts to 8 or 9 feet (2.4 or 2.7 m) for full-length figures. They remained popular until after World War I, when they were discontinued on most ships.

* * *


Universalium. 2010.

Look at other dictionaries:

  • Figurehead — Fig ure*head , n. 1. (Naut.) The figure, statue, or bust, on the prow of a ship. [1913 Webster] 2. A person who allows his name to be used to give standing to enterprises in which he has no responsible interest or duties; a nominal, but not real …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • figurehead — index ineffective, ineffectual, nonentity, powerless, token Burton s Legal Thesaurus. William C. Burton. 2006 …   Law dictionary

  • figurehead — 1765, from FIGURE (Cf. figure) + HEAD (Cf. head). Originally the ornament on the bow of a ship; sense of leader without real authority is first attested 1883 …   Etymology dictionary

  • figurehead — [n] person who is leader in name only cipher, front*, mouthpiece*, nominal head, nonentity, nothing, puppet*, straw boss*, straw person, titular head, token; concepts 354,423 …   New thesaurus

  • figurehead — ► NOUN 1) a carved bust or full length figure set at the prow of an old fashioned sailing ship. 2) a nominal leader without real power …   English terms dictionary

  • figurehead — [fig′yər hed΄] n. 1. a carved figure on the bow of a ship 2. a person put in a position of leadership because of name, rank, etc., but having no real power, authority, or responsibility …   English World dictionary

  • Figurehead — In politics, a figurehead, by metaphor with the carved figurehead at the prow of a sailing ship, is a person who holds an important title or office yet executes little actual power. Common figureheads include constitutional monarchs, such as the… …   Wikipedia

  • figurehead — [[t]fɪ̱gə(r)hed, AM gjə(r) [/t]] figureheads 1) N COUNT If someone is the figurehead of an organization or movement, they are recognized as being its leader, although they have little real power. The President will be little more than a… …   English dictionary

  • figurehead — noun 1) the president was just a figurehead Syn: titular head, nominal leader, leader in name only, front man, cipher, token, mouthpiece, puppet, instrument 2) the figurehead on the ship Syn: carving, bust …   Thesaurus of popular words

  • figurehead — UK [ˈfɪɡə(r)ˌhed] / US [ˈfɪɡjərˌhed] noun [countable] Word forms figurehead : singular figurehead plural figureheads 1) a leader who has no real power or influence, especially a leader of a political party 2) a wooden model of a person fixed to… …   English dictionary

Share the article and excerpts

Direct link
Do a right-click on the link above
and select “Copy Link”

We are using cookies for the best presentation of our site. Continuing to use this site, you agree with this.