Food not for thought.
Dear Word Detective: For those of us who remember “All in the Family,”the white-bread family show of the 70s, one cannot forget Archie Bunker’s term of endearment for his son-in-law: “Meathead”! Is this term born out of pure invention, or does it have any noble origins?– apolo.
Wow. Memory Lane time. Do I need to explain what All in the Family was? Probably. It was a hugely popular sitcom on US TV from 1971-79 (and continued as Archie Bunker’s Place until 1983). Archie Bunker, his wife Edith, daughter Gloria, and her husband Michael Stivik all lived in the Bunkers’ home in Astoria, Queens (a borough in New York City). Archie (Carrol O’Connor) was a deeply reactionary working-class character who frequently clashed with son-in-law Mike (Rob Reiner), a stereotypical liberal college student. The show was known for tackling hot-button social issues of the time such as the Vietnam War, abortion and racism. There is, of course, an extensive page devoted to the show at Wikipedia, where I learned (assuming it’s true) that director Norman Lear had originally approached Mickey Rooney to play the role of Archie. That would have been quite weird.
To Gloria, Edith and the rest of the world, Rob Reiner’s character was “Michael” or “Mike,” but Archie always referred to him (and often addressed him) as “Meathead.” The insult became such a fixture of the show that it quickly lost whatever shock value it originally had and Archie frequently employed it in the same tone that he might have said “your husband” or “him.”
I wouldn’t say that “meathead” has noble origins, but the show’s writers definitely didn’t invent the term. It first appeared in print in English (as far as we know so far) in the mid-19th century (“‘The man who made that order,’ said Judge B. in court, ‘was a meat-head,’” C.G. Leland, 1863), and it definitely wasn’t a term of endearment. The Oxford English Dictionary defines a “meathead” as “a stupid person; a person (especially a man) who has a large or muscular physique but who is unintelligent or uncouth.” Given that Reiner’s character was quite a bit taller than Archie, slightly pudgy for the time, and projected a somewhat hulking, often hangdog look, “meathead” would have been a natural choice of epithet for Archie.
“Meathead” is one of a large number of pejorative slang terms in English for persons perceived to be, either chronically or temporarily, a bit low on the wits scale. The human head being the home of the brain, a substantial number of these phrases end in “head,” the first part of the term delineating the supposed cause, extent or notable object of comparison of the subject’s stupitude. Thus we have “bonehead,” “clunkhead,” “fathead,” “lunkhead,” “jughead,” “chucklehead” and, my fave, “chowderhead.” The head and mind also figure in adjectives such as “osteocephalic” (a fancy Latinate form of “boneheaded”) and the blunt but elegant “brainless.”
In many of such terms, including “meathead,” the assertion is that the subject’s head is made of something, whether inert meat, solid bone, feathers, rocks or wood, clearly not likely to produce deep thoughts. Given the alternatives, Archie’s choice of “meathead” for his son-in-law was actually one of the gentler terms available, far less brutal than “fathead” or “pinhead.”