The Online Encyclopedia and Dictionary







A figurehead is a person, usually in a political role, who may hold an important title or office yet executes little actual power. Common figureheads include constitutional monarchs, such as the Emperor of Japan, or presidents in parliamentary democracies, such as the President of Israel.

While the authority of a figurehead is generally symbolic, respect and access to high levels of government can give them significant influence on some events. An example would be emperor Hirohito's involvement in the surrender of Japan at the end of World War II. In parliamentary systems, presidents are figureheads at times of peace, but at wartime they are often commanders in chief.

The word can also have more sinister overtones, and refer to a powerless leader who should be exercising full authority, yet is actually being controlled by a more powerful figure behind the throne.

The word is a dead metaphor invoking the carved and painted figure built into the prow of a sailing ship.

See also: Head of State

A figurehead is a carved wooden decoration, often female or bestiary, found at the prow of ships of the 16th to the 19th century. The practice was introduced with the galleons of the 16th century, although earlier ships had often had some form of bow ornamentation the figurehead as such could not come to be until ships had a head structure to place it on.

Like the stern ornamentation the purpose of the figurehead was often to indicate the name of the ship in a non-literate society, albeit in a sometimes very convoluted manner, and always (in the case of naval ships) to demonstrate the wealth and might of the owner. At the height of the Baroque ships' figureheads could grow to perfectly absurd sizes, in the case of first-rate ships of the line twinned port&starboard, larger-than-life equestrian sculptures of the reigning monarch riding rougshod over sundry enemies with attendant cherubs and nymphs were not unheard of, several tons of zero-utility carved-work all told.

A large figurehead, being carved from massive wood and perched on the very foremost tip of the hull adversely affected the sailing qualities of the ship. This, and cost considerations, led to figureheads being made dramatically smaller during the 1700s, and in some cases they were abolished altogether around 1800. After the Napoleonic wars they made something of a comeback but were then often in the form of a small waist-up bust rather than the oversized full figures previously used. The clipper ships of the 1850-1860s customarily had full figure-heads, but these were relatively small and light.

Figureheads as such died out with the sailing ship. Early steam-ships however did sometimes have gilt scroll-work and coats-of-arms at their bows, this practice lasted up until about World War I.

Last updated: 02-07-2005 05:52:51
Last updated: 05-03-2005 17:50:55