In honor of Valentine’s Day, we’ll look at eight phrases containing the word “heart.” Most of this fun-with-phrases is due to the hard work of word sleuths at dictionary.com. Thank you kind souls for this . . . and the ongoing service you provide, esp to book authors.
If you break someone’s heart, you cause them great disappointment or sorrow. This often occurs in the realm of love, though heartbreak is not exclusive to romantic endeavors. This expression has been describing sorrow and disappointment since at least the 1530s, though the term heartbreak is 200 years older.
The phrase cleft heart was popularized by William Shakespeare when Hamlet’s mother says, “O Hamlet, thou has cleft my heart in twain.” I was unaware of this usage ’til well into my memoir, Cleft Heart, when a renowned poet pointed it out to me. I’d come up with the two word combo on my own since it not only covered the topic —a cleft lip and palate as well as a congenitally defective heart—I was writing about but also much of the emotion portrayed in the book.
If you know something by heart, you’ve learned it so well you know it from memory, maybe even word for word. For example, in Anne of Green Gables the title character loves Tennyson’s poem “The Lady of Shalott” so much that she knows it by heart. This term, which surfaced in English in the late 1300s, likely comes from the Old French phrase par coeur which literally translates to “by heart.”
If you verbally cross your heart, you do it to maintain the truth of what you just said. You can take this one step further by adding “and hope to die” on to the end of your first utterance, as in “I didn’t eat the last cookie–cross my heart and hope to die.” This expression, which has been used throughout the 20th century, derives from the religious practice of tracing a cross over the heart with a finger to signify a vow.
In Shakespeare’s Othello, Iago states: “I will wear my heart upon my sleeve / for daws to peck at.” But what exactly does this expression mean? The sense that Shakespeare evokes means to make your intimate feelings known to all, leaving yourself vulnerable to being emotionally hurt. The phrase can also refer to the tendency to fall in love easily.
Do you have the necessary will to do something? Yes? Great! Then you have the heart to do it. People have been having heart for a long time now, since the 1300s. On the other end, if you lack the required courage or callousness to do something, you don’t have the heart to do it. Though this expression is more commonly used in the negative context, people still manage to somehow get things done. Perhaps they do this by taking heart, an expression meaning “to become encouraged.”
If you do something to your heart’s content or desire, you do that thing until you are satisfied. Shakespeare was fond of this construction which dates from the early modern period of literature. When the phrase first entered English, “to your heart’s content” was sometimes used without “heart.” Things could be be done “to your content” back in the 1600s, though that trend died out within 50 years.
Another macabre expression, have your heart in your mouth, refers to a heightened state of anxiety or fear. There are many things that might bring your heart all the way up to your mouth, figuratively speaking, including spiders, clowns, and deeply shadowed alleyways. In The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Zaphod Beeblebrox owns a pair of sunglasses that darken to completely obscure the wearer’s vision when heart-in-mouth inducing sights appear.