Head in the Sand – Meaning, Origin and Usage

‘Head in the sand’ is quite a common phrase in English, but if English isn’t your native language (or even if it isn’t), you can be forgiven for wondering what it could mean.

Here, I’m going to unpack everything you need to know. Starting with going through the meaning, then journeying through memory lane to describe just how the phrase came into use.

What is the Meaning of the Phrase ‘Head in the Sand’?

The phrase ‘Head in the sand’ simply means Ignoring a (potentially growing) problem.

What is the Origin of the Phrase ‘Head in the Sand’?

Having someone’s ‘Head in the sand’ is a very old concept, dating back to at least the first century BC, since the Bibliotheca historica (or Historical Library), written by the Greek historian Diodorus Siculus, there’s the first written mention of ostriches (large birds) hiding their heads when a predator is nearby.

Sometimes, the origin of the phrase is incorrectly attributed to the first century AD in the tome Naturalis Historia (or Natural History) written by the Roman scholar and statesman Pliney the Elder.

Pliney the Elder describes how, since ostriches can’t fly, and they are stupid, they attempt to hide from the predator by simply hiding their head in the sand (or bush), as though they believe they can no longer be seen by the predator.

However, contrary to this, Diodorus Siculus asserts that this behaviour by ostriches is smart, since its head is the most vulnerable part of its body, and must protect its head above all else.

The phrase entered the English language much later, and is first cited in Something Occasional Fatall Accident Blacke Friers, published in 1623.

Interestingly, it turns out that this is now considered a myth, and that ostriches don’t, in fact, hide their heads in the sand. Despite this however, the saying is still widely used to this day.

How You Can Use The Phrase ‘Head In The Sand’

The phrase is usually expressed in the present tense as ‘He/she/they/you is/are just burying your head in the sand’.

But it can also be used in the past tense, as follows: ‘Buried his/her/their/your head in the sand’.

Going back to the origin of the phrase, it can be deduced that the phrase refers to not doing enough when in imminent danger. Or in other words, ignoring a growing problem.

It’s a phrase that can be used regardless of why the person/people may be ignoring the issue.

Here are some examples of its usage:

‘He must have wondered why profits are down, but he’s been burying his head in the sand.’

‘You’ve truly got your head in the sand if you think this thing is just going to sort itself.’

‘These overdue bills have been building up, why have you just buried your head in the sand.’

‘You’d better stop burying your head in the sand and take swift action before it’s too late.’

‘The Prime Minister clearly has his head in the sand if he thinks the problem is just going to go away on its own.’

‘I know, I know. I had my head in the sand.’

‘My head is no longer in the sand, and there are going to be some drastic measures taken around here.’

The phrase remains in frequent use in literature, and is even the title of a song by the Canadian punk rockstar Billy Talent. But its most frequent use is by politicians and political commentators and journalists. Its most notable use would be former UK prime minister, and famous orator, Winston Churchill, who used the phrase many times to those politicians who wanted to appease Adolf Hitler rather than oppose him just prior to the Second World War.

Other Things You Can Say In Place Of ‘Head In The Sand’

Since not everyone is familiar with the phrase ‘Head in the sand’, I’ve put together a few other sayings you can use in place of it.

For example, you may be able to use phrases such as:

  • ‘Turn a blind eye’
  • ‘Live in denial’
  • ‘Be in denial’
  • ‘Hoping the problem will just go away on its own’
  • ‘Look the other way’
  • ‘Looking the other way’
  • ‘Close one’s eyes to’.
  • ‘Being complacent’
  • Or, if more brevity is required, for example in a text message, you could say:
  • ‘Ignore’
  • ‘Complacency’
  • ‘Refuse to accept’
  • ‘Refuse to acknowledge’.

Final Thoughts

The phrase ‘Head in the sand’ may have had its origins in ostrich behaviour, but the phrase is most used to describe the behaviour of people.

It’s a way of expressing someone being in denial about a problem, usually a growing problem that should have been nipped in the bud. You can use it to describe your own behaviour or someone else’s.