To keep your head on a swivel is one of those phrases that probably sounds utterly nuts for those of you who aren’t native speakers of the English language.
But in reality:
All it means is that you need to be careful. You should be fully alert of any dangers that might be lurking around the corner. Don’t feel too safe, because doing so will be your downfall.
Imagine your head being put onto a swivel if such a thing were to happen, and your head would somehow remain conscious, you could be able to spin your head around, and take a look at everything around you.
There are a few places where a lot of phrases have come from classic films, magazines, famous authors, and the military.
When you look into it, it’s surprising just how many aspects of our everyday lives have their origins in the military. Including common phrases.
“Keep your head on a swivel” is often said by commanders to their troops. Usually when they’re about to go on patrol in a dangerous area. In these kinds of places, terrorists, and bombs are rife, and you never know where one might be lurking. Which is why it’s wise to always have your eyes open.
Why it makes sense for the military to say it
As I’m sure, many of you will know (and some of you might even have first-hand experience of), working in the military is a dangerous job.
There are always people who want to kill you, and they will stop at nothing to try. For this reason, something as simple as a walk around the block could end up with you being in a box.
Following the advice of “keep your head on a swivel” is going to be wise. If you want to increase your chances of survival, you need to be aware of all the places that danger could be hiding.
What is a swivel?
I’m 99% sure that there will be some of you reading this, and wondering what a swivel is. Knowing what the phrase means can’t be easy if you don’t know about the contraption. So allow me to explain.
A swivel is when two parts are connected, in a way which enables one to spin around without becoming disconnected from the other. That’s why we call a chain that turns a “swivel chair”. It’s also because of this device that we get the phrase “to swivel around”.
Is it a noun? Is it a verb?
Swivel is one of those exciting words which started as a noun but has now become a verb too. A swivel is something that spins around, whereas to swivel means to turn around.
In the case of our quote, swivel is a noun; your head needs to be on top of swivel so that it can turn around. However, if you were to ask someone to “swivel around”, you would be using that word as a verb.
Other examples of nouns that have become verbs are Google, Bottle, and Drink.
“Swivel chair” is an interesting word because it could be debated as to whether the “swivel” part is a noun or a verb. Is it a chair made using a swivel or a chair that you can swivel on?
Other military phrases
Of course, the phrase “keep your head on a swivel is far from the only phrase that has military origins. Let’s take a look at three more examples.
“Bite the bullet” comes from the American Civil War. Sometimes, when you were severely injured, you would need to have some rather painful things done to you, for you to survive. And to stop the screaming, many soldiers would bite down upon a bullet. Hence the phrase “bite the bullet” meaning to do something which you really don’t want to do.
“Whole nine yards” has a slightly unknown origin, even though it is related to the military. Likely talking about the distance that American troops would need to run to be able to attack the British head-on.
And finally “Cup of Joe” was named after Josephus Daniels, a navy secretary who banned alcohol, causing many to replace it with coffee.
When civilians can use it
“But I’m not in the military. When will I need to use ‘keep your head on a swivel’?”
You could one day be given an interview for an important job. Your interviewer might be trying to catch you out, to make sure he only hires the best. You need to be aware of anything he might ask about.
If you’re walking through a busy city, you will need to “keep your head on a swivel” to make sure none of your belongings gets pickpocketed.
Sometimes, the company you work for might be needing to cut people off to save money. In this kind of situation, your colleagues might be trying to get you fired. So you’ll need to keep your head on a swivel to catch them before they can do so.
Of course, this isn’t the only way of saying “be alert”. Several phrases mean similar things.
“Keep your eyes peeled” means to keep your eyes open at all times, you don’t want to be in the dark when something terrible happens.
“Be prepared” is straightforward and to the point way of saying it.
“Be on red alert” means to treat everything with the utmost urgency. Even things which might seem small and insignificant can end up having enormous consequences if not addressed promptly.
“Keep your head on a swivel” is a beautiful example of metaphorical language. Phrases that we use which don’t mean what they literally say.
You can’t literally keep your head on a swivel, trying to turn your neck like that would cause it to break. And you can’t remove your head to put it on one, because you would die. However, we say it because we want people to act as if their head would be on a swivel.
“Keep your head on a swivel” works better than “make your head act like it’s on a swivel”; it’s more concise.
“Keep your head on a swivel” just means to be alert, and aware of any danger which might be surrounding you.
Like many phrases that we say all the time, it has its origins in the military.
A swivel is when two parts are connected in a way that enables one to spin around the other. Because of the noun, the word has also become a verb. When you are talking about putting your body parts on one, it shows an example of metaphorical language.