"The old-fashioned officers whom they encountered appeared to be 'ivory from the neck up'."

From the sources I have searched, the word ivory does not appear to have any specific or metaphorical value. Thus how should I understand the expression in italics?

  • 1
    This is in italics - "This is in quotes, or between quotation marks" - 'this is between single quotation marks' Aug 31, 2014 at 8:27
  • I intended the expression to be both in italics and between single quotation marks. For some unknown reason, the software missed the italics after I published the post — I did not.
    – Brice C.
    Aug 31, 2014 at 12:08
  • Gotcha...at any rate the comment was only intended to be helpful, and it may still be helpful to someone else, so I'm inclined to leave it. Aug 31, 2014 at 12:11
  • Which sources did you search? It's always a good idea to include those while you are asking the question. (ELU has one user who is particularly good at this, and his questions are often rightly rewarded. Here's an example, if you're interested, and you can find plenty more here, too.)
    – J.R.
    Sep 1, 2014 at 19:24

2 Answers 2


That word carries a lot of metaphorical meaning. In that case I believe that the word could be replaced with stone, meaning that the officers exhibited no facial expression. I'd have to see more context to be absolutely sure of the author's intent.

Just as points of interest concerning that word:

Ivory is also often used as a term for white, particularly the white race. A very well known song uses that metaphor, Ebony and Ivory

Also, playing piano can be referred to as tickling the ivories

  • It might also be a hint of all of them being white-haired from age, in addition to being with a fixed facial expression and of the white race.
    – Peteris
    Aug 31, 2014 at 14:00
  • @Peteris — That equates to rather different features. It may account for the fact the original citation displays the single quotation marks — meaning perhaps 'decide for yourself'…
    – Brice C.
    Sep 1, 2014 at 5:23

I hadn't heard this expression before - but Google Books claims "about 164 results" for "ivory from the neck up", and glancing through a few of them it seems the intended meaning is invariably [very] stupid.

But the local commander was the most complete nit-wit, solid ivory from the neck up.

My guess is the usage is at least partly based on the fact that ivory is very dense (heavy, solid, but also used figuratively to mean thick, stupid). It's over a century old, but gained currency during WW1 (it's most commonly used in respect of authority figures - particularly military ones).

  • A very interesting comment, indeed, though not entirely convincing. Could it not mean 'mentally rigid' instead?
    – Brice C.
    Sep 3, 2014 at 12:29
  • @Brice C.: It could indeed. In practice, mental "rigidity" and "slowness" would usually amount to much the same thing when criticising an army officer's inability to react intelligently/creatively to some novel problem. But metaphorically, Victorian military colonials probably thought more in terms of ivory being heavy, dense rather than rigid, hard (since they would have constantly been dragging huge tusks around the country). Sep 3, 2014 at 13:16

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