from The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, 5th Edition.

  • noun A carved figure on the prow of a ship.
  • noun A person given a position of nominal leadership but having no actual authority.

from The Century Dictionary.

  • noun An ornamental figure, as a statue or bust, on the projecting part of the head of a ship, over the cutwater and immediately under the bowsprit.
  • noun Figuratively, a person put forward to represent or to appear to act for others, without having any real authority or responsibility.

from the GNU version of the Collaborative International Dictionary of English.

  • noun (Naut.) The figure, statue, or bust, on the prow of a ship.
  • noun A person who allows his name to be used to give standing to enterprises in which he has no responsible interest or duties; a nominal, but not real, head or chief.

from Wiktionary, Creative Commons Attribution/Share-Alike License.

  • noun nautical A carved figure on the prow of a sailing ship.
  • noun by extension Someone in a nominal position of leadership who has no actual power; a front or front man.

from WordNet 3.0 Copyright 2006 by Princeton University. All rights reserved.

  • noun a person used as a cover for some questionable activity
  • noun figure on the bow of some sailing vessels


Sorry, no etymologies found.



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  • Originally a nautical term describing the symbolic image at the head of a traditional sailing ship or early steamer.

    December 11, 2007

  • This also means "leading figure" in a positive and potent sense in UK usage. Over half the ghits for "a * figurehead" are filled with positive terms such as 'key', 'strong', 'major', 'prominent', 'lynchpin'. Worldwide, however, the older usage strongly predominates, and figureheads are 'ceremonial', 'constitutional', 'toothless', 'compliant', 'token'. This is a remarkable turnaround in meaning: no on-line dictionary yet lists it, that I can find.

    August 14, 2008