Q&A: The origin of “wear your heart on your sleeve”

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, love it or sleeve it…

Q: Hi AWC, I’d like to talk about why people wear their spleen on their shoes.

A: That’s absurd. Nobody does that. 

Q: Aha! Then WHY do they wear their hearts on their sleeves? Huh?

A: Oh, okay. We see where you’re going.

Q: Surely that’s just as absurd. But people say that one all the time!

A: They do – and Macquarie Dictionary defines “wearing your heart on your sleeve” as a phrase that means to openly display one's emotions, intentions, etc.”

Q: But surely this is also just as anatomically impossible.

A: Well yeah, no one is pulling out their beating heart, Temple-of-Doom style and then parading its bloody mass about town strapped onto a sleeve. It’s clearly a metaphor – something that idiom phrases exploit often.

Q: So, where did it come from?

A: Well on this one, you’re in luck. It had a very specific birthdate – but before that, let’s sleeve all this behind and travel back in time. To the 1580s and the arrival of tunes like “Greensleeves”…

Q: Mmmm yes, hey wait a minute – isn’t that the Mr Whippy ice cream truck theme?

A: It certainly is. In England, Australia and New Zealand at least.

Q: Perhaps it should have been renamed ‘white sleeves’ – especially on hot, melty days…

A: True.

Q: What flavours did they have back then?

A: Sorry?

Q: What ice cream flavours in the 1580s? Probably horrible ones like leek or mouldy cheese. And I bet the choc dip was just mud…

A: You misunderstand. There were NO ice cream trucks until the 1920s and Greensleeves has only been associated with the icy treats since the 1950s. The song was chosen by the founder of Mr Whippy, Dominic Facchino. He was a fan of Henry VIII and chose the tune as it had been (mistakenly) attributed to the king, despite debuting on the 16th century charts some 30+ years after he died.

Q: What a fun fact. 

A: Anyway, the word “sleeve” comes from Old English “sliefen”. It effectively meant a garment that you slipped your arm into. To do so carelessly, was to be “slovenly” – of similar origin. It’s also where the word “slippers” come from.

Q: Hmmm I actually don’t know where my slippers come from. My doggo just brings them to me. Good dog.

A: Haha, fair enough. So returning to the 1580s, there was a custom during this time for a young man to tie to his sleeve something gifted to him from a lady who fancied him. This might have been a scarf or handkerchief, and so on. He was effectively wearing his “heart” or loved one on his sleeve – displaying it to the world.

Q: The very first form of PDA.

A: Pathological Demand Avoidance?

Q: Noooo – Public Display of Affection!

A: Ah yes, fair enough. Another theory, somewhat disputed but often borne out through shows such as Game of Thrones, was that knights especially in jousts would take a gift from a lady and wear this on their sleeve of armour during their match.

Q: Hey, what cereal do the rulers of Westeros eat for breakfast?

A: No idea.

Q: All Bran! 

A: You realise that many people won’t get that, right?

Q: It’s still funny. Anyway, you said that there was a specific birthdate for the phrase.

A: We did – and it’s one that has endured. The term was clearly in use prior, but is first recorded in Shakespeare’s 1604 play, Othello. In the play, Iago announces “I will wear my heart upon my sleeve”, knowing that doing so will make him vulnerable.

Q: And that’s what made the phrase famous?

A: Yep. It has evolved a little over the past four centuries – no longer specifically a declaration of love by men about town, but now for use by anyone as a way to make their feelings clearly known.

Q: Example?

A: “As a poker player, you shouldn’t wear your heart on your sleeve.” Or, “Kyrgios wears his heart on his sleeve on the tennis court – making the umpire and crowd know exactly what he’s feeling at all times.”

Q: It’s curious, because sleeves are usually for hiding things, not revealing them.

A: You make a good point. During the Middle Ages, the big sleeves of the day often doubled as pockets, so “to have something up your sleeve” was a very real thing. The figurative expression, meaning having something planned, dates back to around 1500. Meanwhile, those same big sleeves proved useful for secretly finding things funny – by “laughing in (or up) your sleeve” – first recorded in 1546.

Q: What about having an ace up your sleeve?

A: That came much later – specifically in reference to cheating in a card game during the 1840s, while figuratively having a card or ace up your sleeve is noted for “having any hidden resource” from 1863.

Q: My Uncle Max once introduced a tribe of cannibals to the game of poker. 

A: Really? Were they any good?

Q: Well, he lost two hands… bahahaaaa

A: Groan… Let’s go and get some ice cream.

Do you have a question you’d like us to explore? Email it to us today!


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