I came across a comment on The Economist article about hardships people working on lower wages or living off disability payments face. In one of the comments, one commentator narrates a story of a woman who has worked hard to provide for her daughter's education. The comment says,

"She supports herself, works steadily, takes no guff and her daughter, now eighteen, has a head screwed tightly to her shoulders."

What does the phrase "has a head screwed tightly to her shoulders" mean? I would guess something like "keeping one's head down (because it is screwed to the shoulders) and working through one's problems quietly". Am I right?

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  • head <filler> – SrJoven Feb 3 '15 at 17:48
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    I think this is General Reference. Oxford dictionaries: have one's head screwed on {the right way} - (informal) to be wise or sensible – FumbleFingers Feb 3 '15 at 17:48
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    @FumbleFingers Perhaps in contradiction to having one's head in the clouds. Or am I mixing a metaphor too glibly? – WS2 Feb 3 '15 at 17:53
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    See also: "She has a good head on her shoulders." – Kevin Workman Feb 3 '15 at 18:05
  • Unlikely to lose one's head (another idiom!). – JAB Sep 1 '16 at 20:19

Th standard idiom is "have [one's] head screwed on right [or "on the right way"]." Both British English and U.S. English have this idiom, but the sense of the phrase may differ slightly. The sense in British English seems to be essentially what FumbleFingers reports in a comment above. John Ayto, Oxford Dictionary of English Idioms, third edition (2009) has this entry for the phrase:

have your head screwed on (the right way) have common sense. informal

And Cambridge International Dictionary of Idioms (1998) has this:

have your head screwed on (the right way) informal

if someone has their head screwed on the right way, they do not do stupid things [example omitted]

But in U.S. usage, the phrase may imply less of an opposition between stupidity and common sense, and more of one between erratic behavior/eccentricity and reliability/predictability. Here is the entry for the idiom "have a screw loose" in Christine Ammer, American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms (1997):

have a screw loose Be mentally unstable or eccentric, as in Anyone who approves that purchase must have a screw loose. This term likens a mental weakness to a machine in which a part is not securely fastened. An antonym is have one's head screwed on right; for example, She's very capable; she has her head screwed on right. [Slang; early 1800s]

The phrase "have one's head screwed tightly to one's shoulders" is surely less common, but its inclusion of the word tightly emphasizes the idea that the person doesn't "have a screw loose."

  • I would say that the US usage is similar to the British. Having "a screw loose" is a somewhat different idiom (with different implications) than "having ones head screwed on right". To say an 18-year-old has their "head screwed on tightly" would imply that that person is quite "well-adjusted" and also quite "self-sufficient". – Hot Licks Feb 3 '15 at 18:21
  • Until I checked the Oxford, Cambridge, and American Heritage references, I didn't suppose that there was any difference at all. Their wording raises the possibility that some minor difference in focus may exist. But certainly "differ slightly" and "[are] similar" are not mutually exclusive assessments. – Sven Yargs Feb 3 '15 at 18:45
  • Once again, "having a screw loose" is a different idiom. – Hot Licks Feb 3 '15 at 19:13
  • @HotLicks: If you are saying that Ammer is wrong to describe "have one's head screwed on right" as an antonym of "have a screw loose," then I think your disagreement is with her. I'm simply reporting that she expressly puts the two phrases in opposition, whereas the Oxford and Cambridge dictionaries do not. Neither she nor I deny that the two idioms are different. – Sven Yargs Feb 3 '15 at 19:30
  • I guess I'm saying that her's was not a very precise statement. She tried to dispatch two avians with the same chunk of Earth's crust, when, in fact, this was not completely appropriate. – Hot Licks Feb 3 '15 at 19:33

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