Such aphorisms as 'Think With Your Head, Not Your Heart' connote positivity of the noun 'head', but such English words as heady and testy connote negativity. So why this clash and polarity of connotation?

Per Etymonline, the etymology of 'testy' involves French. Does French help to explain anything?

  • "Positive" and "negative" are not really useful terms; they're judgements, not descriptions. Here you're dealing with a metaphor. Several metaphors, in fact, because head and heart are not opposed organs except in a logic/emotion trope. But there are other issues as well.
    – john lawler in exile
    Commented Mar 16, 2015 at 22:29
  • 1
    "several bottles of heady local wine" is not really negative, it just means that the wine is particularly strong and can go straight to your head. And "In the heady days of their youth, they thought anything was possible" the early years of our lives can be intoxicating, brash, exciting, even daring. The adjective "headstrong" can express strong-will and/or stubbornness.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Mar 17, 2015 at 22:20
  • And in Italian testa means "head" which explains where the word testy comes from. Now if the French borrowed from Italians or vice versa matters little, what we do know is that testy is a calque or loanword
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Mar 17, 2015 at 22:22
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    See this answer written by John Lawler and how he uses the word "heady".
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Mar 17, 2015 at 22:46
  • @Mari-LouA the sense "intoxicating" and the Middle English form heved "heady"(see wiktionary) do remind of German (Low German?) heftig, that is "strong, crass", by my estimate akin to "heavy", Ger. hiefen "to lift heavy", though there's also kopflastig (head loaded, ca. unbalanced). At least, that might be a notable parallel. Wiktionary says that the similarity to hefty is "apparently coincidental" which they have indeed from heft "weight"
    – vectory
    Commented May 3, 2020 at 18:38

4 Answers 4


To "think with one's head" suggests the value of using logic; not the value of the head for all things.

"Heady" and "testy" both suggest emotion - something that goes to the head and prevents normal, logical thinking processes.

In circumstances where it may be a positive thing to think with one's head, it wouldn't necessarily be good to be "heady" or "testy."


Usage of the "head" as the "thinking end" of a person invites contrasting uses that emphasize good/clever/bad/dull or clear vs. distorted thinking. Hence polarities are formed in both positive and negative ways. As you probably know, there can be many forms of "Think With Your Head, Not With Your ______", and not all of them would be positive.

  • Yeah, "feet", in that context, is likely a euphemism for sexual organs.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Jun 6, 2020 at 12:20

In French, 'tête', meaning head, (teste in Middle and Old French) has a more physical connotation, and while sharing many English uses such as the lead, or front of something, typically 'esprit' is used to refer to one's mind. French phrases that do use the word 'tête' in a similar fashion to English tend to have physical connotations, for example 'avoir la tête dure', to have a hard head, or 'avoir la tête sur les épaules', meaning 'to have the head on the shoulders'.

Consider that French has had a profound impact on the English language from Norman invasion in the 11th century BC, whereas public acceptance of neuroscience, and thus the conception of 'head' in a non-physical context is a fairly recent thing. If you consider the implied physicality of the phrase in question, it would appear to divide this apparently clash of connotations into two distinct meanings.

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    And don't forget the word "têtu", which means "stubborn". Commented May 7, 2020 at 6:40

"Using your head" refers to making intellectual decisions. The intellect is assumed to be the best faculty a person has for decision making.

"Heady" means something which "goes to your head" and "affects your head (see here) It's the opposite of "using your head"- thus it refers to when emotions prevent one from using one's intellect.

So the two usages are: "using one's head" or 'not using one's head." That's why one is positive and the other negative. There's no contradiction.

  • There's a surface-level contradiction. Etically, 'heady' might be guessed to be a synonym for 'intellectual' or 'wise' (if the head-brain-thinking association is known).. The confusing issue (to one who doesn't realise the etymology) is that 'wrongly affecting the use of' is elided with 'heady', rather than 'making sound use of'. Commented Jun 6, 2020 at 12:14

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