Spanish Word of the Day: 'Cabeza de turco'

Alex Dunham
Alex Dunham - [email protected]
Spanish Word of the Day: 'Cabeza de turco'
An alternative to cabeza de turco is chivo expiatorio, which is a literal translation of scapegoat in English. Photo: Georges Gobet/AFP

It may sound like an unappetising Spanish dessert, but what does ‘Turkish head’ actually mean?


Cabeza de turco is the correct Spanish way of saying scapegoat, a person or group who are wrongly blamed for the mistakes or sins of others. 

If you’re somewhat familiar with Spanish, you’ll recognise that in its literal sense, cabeza de turco translates as ‘head of Turk’. 

This compound noun has had its origins traced back to the times of the Crusades, when the Turks were the archenemies of the Christians.


At the time, killing a rival Turk, chopping his head off and putting it on a spike or a ship's mast was considered a superlative achievement.  

The Crusaders would blame the decapitated head for all the problems they had encountered in battle and during the Crusades as a whole, which suggests that the practice of blaming foreigners for society’s problems is a habit which has been around for quite some time.  

An alternative to cabeza de turco is chivo expiatorio, which is a literal translation of scapegoat in English, bouc émissaire in French or Sündenbock in German. 

Scapegoat has an equally fascinating backstory as it refers to the Jewish ritual of sending a goat into the desert to carry or atone for the sins of the Israelites.

As the Book of Leviticus in the Old Testament states: “And Aaron shall cast lots upon the two goats; one lot for the Lord, and the other lot for the scapegoat. And Aaron shall bring the goat upon which the Lord’s lot fell, and offer him for a sin offering. But the goat, on which the lot fell to be the scapegoat, shall be presented alive before the Lord, to make an atonement with him, and to let him go for a scapegoat into the wilderness.”


In Spanish, cabeza de turco and chivo expiatorio have the exact same meaning and connotation, although the former tends to be used more often.

Cabeza de turco is not considered politically incorrect in Spain, but if you would rather not use it, you can instead say chivo expiatorio.

Cabeza de turco never changes based on whether the scapegoat is masculine or feminine, but the pronoun el or la that precedes it is dependent on the gender, as evidenced in the sentence below. So, if the scapegoat is masculine, it's el cabeza de turco, and if it's feminine you say la cabeza de turco.

Newspaper headline which reads "Truss fires Kwarteng and turns him into the 'scapegoat' of the UK's crisis.

However, if you want to say scapegoats in the plural, you can say cabezas de turco. 


  • Vox siempre usa a los inmigrantes como cabezas de turco para los problemas de España. 

Vox always uses immigrants as scapegoats for Spain's problems. 

  • Siempre igual, pagan justos por pecadores. Eres el cabeza de turco y los demás se lo han creído. 

It's always the same, the just pay for the sinners. You're the scapegoat and the rest have fallen for it. 

  • Según los medios, Sánchez va a usar a la ministra como cabeza de turco para lavarse las manos. 

According to the press, Sánchez is going to use the minister as a scapegoat to wash his hands of it. 


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