Heads Up – Meaning, Origin


An advanced warning said to a person to help them prepare for something.

Example: A woman named Abby hasn’t been getting enough sleep lately, and so her job performance is suffering. She’s even fallen asleep at her desk, and now her boss is about to walk by her cubicle. One of Abby’s workmates did not want her to get into trouble, so he quickly told her: “Heads up, the boss is on his way over here!”

In other words, the workmate warned Abby so that she could be ready for what was coming.

Synonyms / Related Sayings:
Keep your eyes peeled
On your toes
On the lookout

The Origin Of ‘Heads Up’

The origin of this phrase is unclear. The earliest I could find it in writing is from the early 20th century. For example, in an advertisement from the Daily Express newspaper, 1910, there’s a part that reads:

“Attention! Eyes Front! Heads Up! Listen! You’ll thank us for calling your attention to these 50×163 foot lots. Every improvement: not some.”

This saying was also a term used in sports. The Washington Post newspaper, printed in 1914, provided a definition for this term, saying:

“‘Heads Up,’ a baseball and football term signifying alertness, action…”

Additionally, this phrase was used to describe an ‘alert’ style of play in baseball. In the Sheboygan Press, for example, 1919:

“The Reds, though outclassed by the veteran White Sox team, played heads up ball all the way and sensational fielding gave the fans plenty of opportunity to root their heads off.”

Example Sentences

  1. Hey Jim, I just want to give you a heads up and tell you that our boss is going to be here in a few minutes, so you should stop messing around on that computer and get back to work! Otherwise you’re gonna get in trouble.

Note: The definitions for common phrases and idioms can be found with ease, but finding the phrase origins proves far more challenging. Looking back through history, it’s tough to find the place or person in which a phrase has its roots. We are limited to what can be found in writings, such as books, poems, newspapers, and plays. Often times, phrases will be quoted from century old newspapers, or from plays that were done in the 17th century by playwrights like William Shakespeare.
The phrases that are quoted are likely already commonly known, and have their origins elsewhere. For instance, just because an idiom shows up in a newspaper from 1850, does not mean the idiom originated from that newspaper. However, what that does tell you, is that the phrase was being used since 1850, so its origins are at least more than 150 years old.

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