AskDefine | Define figurehead

Dictionary Definition



1 a person used as a cover for some questionable activity [syn: front man, front, nominal head, straw man, strawman]
2 figure on the bow of some sailing vessels

User Contributed Dictionary



  1. a carved figure on the prow of a sailing ship
  2. In the context of "by extension": someone in a nominal position of leadership who has no actual power; a front or front man


carved figure on the prow of a sailing ship
someone in a nominal position of leadership

Extensive Definition

In politics, a figurehead, by metaphor with the carved figurehead at the prow of a sailing ship, is a person who holds 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 World War II. In parliamentary systems, presidents are figureheads at times of peace (delegated such powers as convening or dismissing the national legislature), but at wartime they are often commanders in chief.
Sometimes a figurehead can be exploited in times of emergency. For example, Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi used the figurehead President of India to issue unilateral decrees that allowed her to bypass parliament when it no longer supported her.
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 tendency of this word to drift, like many words that are in a strong process of changed meanings, into the pejorative is beginning to make it unsuitable to apply to a head of state with limited constitutional authority, such that its use may become increasingly inappropriate in referring to monarchs and presidents in parliamentary systems.

See also

figurehead in Finnish: Keulahahmo

Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

Charlie McCarthy, a nobody, a nothing, adherent, advocate, alter ego, alternate, amicus curiae, armory, attorney, backup, backup man, badge, badge of office, badges, baton, beak, blazonry, bow, bowsprit, brassard, bust, button, cap and gown, carving, chain, chain of office, champion, cipher, class ring, cockade, collar, common man, creature, cross, decoration, deputy, disciple, doll, dolly, dress, dummy, eagle, emblems, ensigns, executive officer, exponent, fantoccini, fasces, figure, figurine, fleur-de-lis, flunky, follower, forecastle, foredeck, forepeak, front, front man, gillie, gingerbread man, goon, hammer and sickle, hanger-on, henchman, heraldry, insignia, insignificancy, jackal, jackstraw, jib boom, lackey, lapel pin, lay figure, lieutenant, lightweight, little fellow, little guy, livery, locum, locum tenens, mace, man, man of straw, manikin, mannequin, mantle, marionette, markings, medal, mediocrity, minion, model, monument, mortarboard, mouthpiece, myrmidon, nebbish, nobody one knows, nominal head, nonentity, nose, obscurity, old school tie, paranymph, pin, pinch hitter, pip-squeak, pleader, portrait bust, procurator, prore, prow, proxy, punk, puppet, regalia, representative, ring, rose, rostrum, runt, satellite, scarecrow, school ring, scrub, sculpture, second in command, secondary, shamrock, shrimp, sigillography, skull and crossbones, small fry, small potato, small potatoes, snowman, sphragistics, squirt, squit, staff, stand-in, statuary, statue, statuette, stem, stooge, straw man, substitute, surrogate, swastika, sycophant, tartan, thistle, thug, tie, understudy, uniform, utility man, verge, vicar, vicar general, vice, vicegerent, votary, wand, wax figure, waxwork, whiffet, whippersnapper, wood carving
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