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Why would you say “10 head of cattle” instead of “10 heads of cattle”? Don’t give me: “That’s the way cowboys say it.” I want a real reason. Isn’t it “10 heads of lettuce”, anyway?
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It's called a "synecdoche," which rhymes (sort of) with "Schenectady" (the town in upstate New York); if you can say one, you probably can't say the other.
A synecdoche is defined, in the Oxford English Dictionary, Second Edition, as "A figure by which a more comprehensive term is used for a less comprehensive or vice versa; as whole for part or part for whole, genus for species or species for genus, etc." You say "head" when you mean "entire individual bovine."
The same mechanism is at work when you say "Texas A&M beat Georgia Tech at football this weekend." (hooraw go Aggies!!) OK. Weird morning at the oil rig, sorry. Seriously though, since all of one college did not play football with all of the other college, what you have here is an example of synecdoche.
Why is this done, though, you ask? Well, my friend, Your Correspondent From Houston can only say, "That's the way cowboys say it." (Of course, the cowboys in question probably kept cattle long ago in England, but a cowboy is a cowboy is a cowboy, /pace/ Gertrude Stein.)
I'd say it has nothing to do with synechdoche. It's just the counting word we use for cattle. Why? Dunno. But English has plenty of counting words: blades of grass, sheets of paper, volumes of books, tracks of music, tracts of land. How we wound up with "head" as the counting word for cattle isn't clear, but it's easy to imagine cowboys taking a head-count, and generalizing from there.
Of course, this does nothing to answer the head/heads question. The only other case I can think of where we avoid perfectly good plurals is when discussing height: I'm five foot nine.
Actually it has everything to do with synecdoche--it's one of the textbook demonstration examples (Google it and see what I mean). Good point about "foot" though.
Anyway, I was thinking about this last night when I went to the grocery store, and damned if I didn't hear one poorly dressed woman say to another, "if you're gonna make salad for all them, you're gonna need about ten head a lettuce." In other words, maybe it's a casual or uneducated usage that has become common through use.
"Synechdochic use for 'person' (as in head count) is first attested 1535; of cattle, etc., in this sense from 1513." -- http://www.etymonline.com/h2etym.htm
All this talk about synecdoche doesn't really have anything to do with the question at hand (nor is there any indication that the questioner doesn't know what a synecdoche is, either). However, I am unable to come up with a good answer myself, so it may be that there is no "real reason" to say it other than "that's the way the cowboys say it".
"Five foot nine" is quite different, because you are constructing an adjective ("I wouldn't touch that with a ten foot pole"), not a noun. When you want a noun, you pluralize it, as in "she has five feet of duct tape," or "now walk forward ten feet". Similarly, you can do the same for other counters, like in the odd sentence "that's pretty small for a 10 head salad," or the expression "two-door car".
The closest example of a similar construction to "ten head of cattle" that I can think of is "I have two pair" in poker, but that's not terribly close.
Technically speaking, "head" is in fact a zero plural form, but only when in reference to cattle. So in that particular usage, it behaves just like any other zero plural.
As for synecdoche, "head" is a somewhat unusual example, because you cannot substitute the whole back again for the part. I.e., you cannot say "I have 10 cattle of cattle." In most examples of synecdoche of which I am familiar, you can. "Three hired guns" becomes "Three mercenary killers." "All hands on deck" becomes "all sailors on deck." So even if "head of cattle" is an example of synecdoche (which I believe it is), it is an unusual one, and not a very good textbook example.
Cattle is used as a plural. Earlier it used to be under collective noun - like herd of cattle, not herds of cattle or herd of cattles or herds of cattles. Hence "head of cattle". It used be used with numbers like- 50 head of cattle.
Have you tried counting the hooves of cattle? Easier to do a head count .... ergo head of cattle! 3 cows is 3 cows 1500 head is a herd of cattle.
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