The basic meaning of overhead is "above one's head"

However, in business field, usually An overhead cost or expense. ‘overheads, such as lighting, equipment, and any little extras, are paid for out of a centralized fund’ Overhead (business) - WikipediaOverhead (business) - Wikipedia

In computing field, In computer science, overhead is any combination of excess or indirect computation time, memory, bandwidth, or other resources that are required to perform a specific task.Overhead (computing) - Wikipedia

So the key extending meaning is 'indirect and excess'.

I really unable to relate the meaning to "above one's head"? What can I discern might be 'dangerous', 'pressing', 'important' above one's head?

Is there a fable or a proverb about this?

  • It is just above other expenses. – mplungjan Dec 5 '17 at 12:45
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    I don't know if this is historically related or not, but it's common to talk about paying living expenses as "keeping a roof over [someone's] head." That is, literally meaning the paying of rent or a mortgage for your home, but also extended to all of your basic household expenses like utilities and furnishings. I suppose it could be possible that this is where the business definition of "overhead" came from - it's paying for the roof over the head of all of the employees. – Canadian Yankee Dec 5 '17 at 15:23
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    If it helps you conceptualize it at all, I don't think you can tie the idea of "indirect" in very well, but the idea of "excess" being above one's head is not unusual. For example, with network overhead, if you think of the data load as being the basic "height" of the packet, then the data required to format and send the packets is "above the head" of the data. In business, if the cost of goods and production is the basic "height," the cost of lighting the building is "above the head" of the basic costs. – joiedevivre Dec 5 '17 at 18:29

The key is not, as you say, "indirect and excess" but "unavoidable costs incurred when performing work". It is the same for brick-and-mortar business establishments and for digital computation. The "work" may be different but the core concept of overhead is the same.

A business needs lights; a program needs electrical power; a business needs records, a program needs persistent memory, and so on.

As a mnemonic, the overhead of a brick-and-mortar business is "the roof overhead" (think part for whole, so the building and everything that goes with the physical establishment: rents, upkeep and maintenance, utilities, etc); a program's overhead likewise is the physical place where its work gets done, the computer and all of its associated resources (memory, CPU cycles, bandwidth, etc).


You are referring to the word in two different forms.

Overhead as a business cost is a noun. Overhead as in 'Birds flying overhead' is an adverb.

More here

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