Q&A: Origin of “eat your heart out”

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, it's the heart of the matter…

Q: Hey AWC, where does the phrase “eat your heart out” come from?

A: Oh, it’s actually from 18th century cannibal tribes – who would eat the hearts out of their enemies and invite others to do the same.

Q: Wow, really?

A: Nope. We just made all that up.

Q: I really hate it when you do that.

A: Yeah sorry. Anyway, let’s start by looking at what this idiom means these days. Macquarie Dictionary defines “eat one’s heart out” as to pine or fret, especially with envy. They go on to say that it originated from the past belief that the heart was weakened by sorrow or jealousy. 

Q: So someone might show off their brand new sports car and say “eat your heart out!” in an attempt to make Steve envious.

A: Steve?

Q: Yes, because Steve told her that she’d never be a success and was destined to die poor.

A: Steve sounds horrible.

Q: Yep. But anyway, why EAT a heart?

A: The most common origin story dates from around the 1580s, when the phrase was “eat one’s own heart” – a term that meant to “suffer in silence from anguish or grief”. The eating part is thought to have come from the Bible phrase “to eat one’s own flesh” – which meant to be lazy.

Q: I have never met a lazy person who eats flesh!

A: You’re right, they’re usually far more industrious types.

Q: Um, okay. 

A: Some say the phrase came from the Yiddish phrase “Es dir cys s’harts” – meaning to “suffer vexation over my situation.” Then others point to the Ancient Greeks, where the earliest reference of “eat your heart out” appears in Homer.

Q: The Simpsons? Isn’t that “eat my shorts”?

A: No, Homer, the Ancient Greek author of The Iliad. It’s a classical text from 850BC and useful to know for Pub Trivia.

Q: No point remembering it – Steve on our team always steals the pen.

A: Typical Steve.

Q: What was the phrase’s context in The Iliad?

A: It told of a grieving Bellerophon eating his heart out in grief after Artemis and Ares killed his children.

Q: Maybe Homer had been told by his editor to “kill your darlings”?

A: Maybe. Anyway, since these early days, the idea of grief “eating” away at you has stuck around. And what could be more important than your heart? Although these days, it’s likely more about describing the all-consuming nature of your action, as also seen in “cry your heart out”.

Q: I feel like the modern meaning is a little less about grieving though, right?

A: Yeah, and this change apparently happened in the 1950s – when the phrase got used throughout the showbiz industry, becoming more about doing something better than someone else.

Q: So, more of a comparison than a stage of grief?

A: That’s right; less sagging and more bragging. These days we also often use it as a lighthearted way to take pride in our achievements – by tacking on the name of a famous person known for being good at that thing. For example, if you negotiate a slippery corner in your car, you might say, “Daniel Ricciardo, eat your heart out!”

Q: Is this the same sports car from earlier?

A: Um, sure.

Q: And is Steve still watching?

A: No, Steve went home to get ready for trivia.

Q: Typical Steve.

A: Another example might be cooking a fancy meal and saying, “Eat your heart out, Jamie Oliver!”

Q: Although knowing him, he probably would too. “A right nosh up, with some pucker chunky spuds, innit? Invite the boys round, quick as a flash, eating tasty heart in under 15 minutes, geezer.”

A: Jamie’s Cannibal Cookbook – sure to be a bestseller.

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