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In French, "mind" is usually translated as "esprit," (thinking faculty) or "tête," which is actually closer to "head," the physical, bony receptacle of the mind.

However, French doesn't seem to have an exact word for "mind," (for "mēns," if you will), not as the faculty of thinking, like "esprit," but as the incorporeal, Cartesian-like organ that produces, and also houses, the faculty of thinking, the way either English or Latin have in their respective words describing this receptacle where thoughts are born.

Is it then true that French has only "esprit" or "tête" for "mind," and that neither is a perfect equivalent for the English word?

If then, how does French render a sentence like this: "My mind [receptacle] is full of ideas," as opposed to "My mind [faculty] thinks a lot"?

  • "Tête" is probably what you want for the receptacle. "What do you have in mind?!" = "Qu'est-ce que tu as en tête ?!". – Destal May 7 '17 at 12:28
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If we look at the TLF we can see that tête means :

A. − une partie du corps.
B. − le siège de l'activité cérébrale, ou considérée du point de vue des activités intellectuelles et du psychisme.

A. would be "the head".
B. would be "the mind".

Tête will translate "mind" very often. Especially (but not only) in relation to thinking.

  • J'ai des idées plein la tête.
  • Je n'arrive pas à me sortir ça de la tête.
  • Il a une tête bien faite.

Esprit will also translate "mind", often (but not only) when considering a more global approach to the mind.

  • Ça ne me vient pas à l'esprit pour l'instant.
  • Avoir l'esprit logique.
  • Avoir l'esprit ouvert / vif.

At times both can be used:

  • Perdre la tête. / Perdre l'esprit.

Very often English phrases with mind will translate with neither tête nor esprit.

  • Je pense beaucoup (plus fréquent je pense comme construction que "j'ai la tête pleine d'idées" qui se dit aussi).(My mind thinks a lot)

  • À quoi penses-tu ? (What's on your mind?)

  • Je suis très préoccupé. (I have a lot on my mind.)

  • La télékinésie c'est la faculté de pouvoir déplacer des objets par la pensée. (The ability to move objects with one's mind).*

A non native will probably have to learn the French expressions in order to use the right word.


I answered strictly within the scope of your question (tête vs esprit) but I want to add that esprit has other meanings in French:

  • wit (Il a de l'esprit)
  • spirit (avoir l'esprit d'équipe)

* Merci à @Johnmacward & @Gilles for mentioning pensée.

  • 1
    That's what I call advanced learning, getting to the very bone and marrow of things, and leaving the down and skin of it well above you. – ΥΣΕΡ26328 May 7 '17 at 13:38
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    Two more important translations: pensée (as suggested by johnmacward), and raison (mind vs soul, although esprit is sometimes the right translation for mind in this duality). – Gilles 'SO nous est hostile' May 7 '17 at 20:33
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The Latin word, "Mens, mentis" has given a word in every Romance language except French. "La mente" in Spanish, Italian, Portuguese. "La minte" in Romanian. "La ment" in Catalan. Etc. In French, you can translate "Mind" with "l'esprit", "la raison", "la tête", depending on the context. But, to me these words only translate "Mind" partially. Something is missing, some of the deeper meaning gets lost. On top of that, "l'esprit" also means "Spirit", so "l'esprit" means both "Mind" and "Spirit" !

In a similar odd way, "Awareness", "Consciousness", and "Conscience" all translate into, "La conscience" in French !

  • En français, on a mentir qui vient de mens, mentis, comme si c'était la seule occasion où on fait preuve d'esprit et d'imagination... – mouviciel Nov 29 '18 at 9:12
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Not a reply as Laure already wrote a good one, but a note about mēns heritage.

La mente (and sometimes le ment), meaning intelligence, entendement, décision, used to exist in French.

Its usage possibly dropped because of multiple collisions with :

  • la mente meaning "lie" (now mensonge), from mentiō

  • la ment(h)e meaning "mint", from mentha..

  • la mante, a kind of cape/coat (relates to manteau), from mantellum

  • la mante (religieuse), from mantis.

  • l'amante, the loved/loving woman, from amāns.

Note that there are words sharing the same root like dément and mental and the adverbial suffix -ment is common. There is also mention and mentir.

  • Yes, indeed, there are several French words formed from "mens, mentis", several hundreds of which use "ment" as a suffixe. Quite a few of those words have found their way into English. "le gouvernement", "the government". You said that "la mente" used to exist in French, which I did not know. I actually researched it and did not find any trace of it. I asked a grammarian last year if he knew when "mens, mentis" and its possible derivatives had disappeared from Old French, and he could not answer me. Would you mind sharing with me the information you have on the subject? – Vincent Nov 29 '18 at 1:54
  • I was actually referring to Old French usage. The Godefroy has an entry for la mente micmap.org/dicfro/search/dictionnaire-godefroy/mente – jlliagre Nov 29 '18 at 8:54
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Interestingly enough, the latin saying "mens sana in corpore sano" is famously known in France as "Un esprit sain dans un corps sain".

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