The Grammarphobia Blog

Can a woman be testy?

Q: A headline on Politico about an exchange between Hillary Clinton and an NPR reporter said, “Hillary gets testy over gay marriage.” It strikes me as inappropriate to use a word derived from the male reproductive organs to describe a woman.

A: The word “testy” doesn’t refer to the testes. It comes from an entirely different part of the human anatomy—the head.

In the 14th century, English adopted “testy” from testif, an Anglo-French term derived from teste, the Old French word for head and the ancestor of the modern French word tête.

John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins says the ultimate source is testa, the classical Latin term for an earthenware pot. In the post-classical period, Ayto notes, testa “was used humorously for ‘head.’ ”

When “testy” first showed up in English in the 1300s, according to Ayto, it meant headstrong or impetuous. But by the 1500s the meaning of “testy” had evolved from impetuous to impatient to irritable.

The earliest example of the word in the Oxford English Dictionary (used in the headstrong sense) is from Chaucer’s Middle English poem Troilus and Criseyde (circa 1374), in which Diomede is described as “Hardy, testyf, strong and cheualrous.”

The first OED citation for “testy” used in the irritable sense is from Pylgrimage of Perfection, a 1526 treatise by William Bonde: “Whiche wyll suffre his pacient though he be neuer so testy or angry.”

None of the Oxford citations use “testy” to describe a woman, but we’ll end with an example from Buried Alive (2011), Myra Friedman’s biography of Janis Joplin.

Dave Richards is quoted as saying he was initially terrified by Joplin when he was hired to help with the band’s equipment: “She was testy, testy about masculinity, about femininity, about everything.”

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