Sunday, December 14, 2008

Apple #357: Eat Your Heart Out

A reader who is new to the Daily Apple -- but is no less faithful -- asked me to look into a topic for him. He wanted to know about the phrase "eat your heart out." Strange phrase, isn't it? he observed. I agreed.

This, we're supposed to eat?
(Image from The Wellington Hospital)

Upon investigation, I discovered that it seems to be a slippery phrase for a lot of people, including those who write dictionaries.

First off, people can't seem to fix on exactly what emotion it represents. I found definitions that said it means to depict:
  • jealousy
  • bitterness
  • worry
  • sorrow
  • bitter anguish
  • hopeless anguish
  • hopeless disappointment
  • longing
  • grief
  • silent grief or vexation
  • pain
  • strong feelings [undefined] gnawing at one's [metaphorical] heart

Jealousy, by Edvard Munch, reflects only part of what "eat one's heart out" expresses
(Image from Edvard

Additionally compounding the confusion is the fact that the phrase is often used as a definition for other words. Fretting, for example, is often defined as eating one's heart out. Not very helpful.

I'm going to try to bring some clarity on this. [Apple Lady dons her lexicographer cap.]

I think a key part of the phrase is the concept of hopelessness. There's something you want but can't have, though you yearn for it mightily. You might be jealous of someone else's talent or ability or fame; you might be pining for a lover who will never be yours; you might be grieving over someone who died. In all cases, though your desire may be strong, you will not obtain what you wish for.

Those of you familiar with our good friend the Latin language might be reminded of the word utinam, which expresses the impossible wish: "Would that I could achieve the roguish, scruffy beard of George Clooney!" or "Oh, if only I could be as skinny as Keira Knightley!" Even as you say it, you know it's never going to happen. Eating your heart out over something seems to be a similar concept.

Impossible wishes.
(Photo of George Clooney from Julie Luongo's blog); photo of Keira Knightley from Anton's MySpace page)

In addition, there's the difficulty of point of view. As in the previous examples, you might be eating your own heart out, in which case the emotion is more of a sad, yearning kind of thing. But you might also be telling someone else to eat his or her heart out. In those cases you are wishing upon them that state of hopeless yearning. But you are making such statement with great zest and superiority, a playground nyah nyah nyah-ness: "I'm so great at figure skating, Tara Lipinsky can eat her heart out!" or as Angelina Jolie might have said to Jennifer Aniston, "Eat your heart out, Jenny-poo!"

(Photo from the Sun Sentinel)

There remains the further question, where did this phrase come from? The visual imagery of eating one's own heart is quite graphic and startling. It's not as if this is a thing we tend to do in real life. So who dreamed up this little gem?

Once again, the dictionaries hobnobbing around on the internet are not that helpful. I found etymologies and definitions that said the phrase dates from
  • 1596
  • late 1500s
  • 1500s
  • 1200s
  • Biblical times
  • The Odyssey
When there's this much disparity in fact, that's usually code for "nobody knows." But in this case, since a lot of places mentioned that date 1596, I thought there had to be some specific reference that appeared in 1596. But nobody online said what it was. Lots of dictionaries were throwing that date around, but with no specifics to back it up.

So the only thing to do was to turn to my ever-trusty and much-loved Oxford English Dictionary (OED). Sure enough, it contains the answer.

The 1596 occurrence comes from Spenser's Faerie Queene, Book I, Canto II: "He could not rest; but did his stout heart eat." The context for this is that the Red Cross Knight has just come upon a magician-devised image of Una, his lady, with another man: "that false couple were full closely ment / In wanton lust and leud [lewd] embracement: / Which, when he saw, he burnt with gealous fire." Then he goes back to his room and is tormented by bitter anguish. I.e., did his stout heart eat.

The Red Cross Knight and Una, over whose supposed betrayal he eats his heart out.
(Image from Illusions Gallery)

The OED also refers to the Bible. It says there is this verse from Ecclisiastes: "The fool foldeth his hands together and eateth his own flesh." The OED also says that the Bible (no chaper & verse cited) uses the phrase "to eat one's own flesh" to refer to someone who is lazy.

Well, laziness and foolishness are not part of our going definitions for eating one's heart out. But perhaps the notion of ineffectiveness applies. A lazy person who sits around eating his or her own flesh is not going to get anything done. Similarly, pining after something that will never come to pass is also quite ineffective.

The woman in this painting, called Indolence, could also be pining after someone as well as being lazy, I suppose.
(Painting by Frederick Arthur Bridgman, image from The Orientalist Gallery)

But, okay, why the heart? How did we get from eating our own flesh in the Bible to eating our heart in the Faerie Queene? Several of those dictionaries online posit that the heart used to be considered -- and still is, I'd say -- the core of a person's being. So to indicate that you're really torn up about something, you're not going to be just gnawing at your forearm or chewing on your thumb, you're going to be eating your entire heart out of your body. That is serious business.

So, it's not a neat and tidy answer for you, Jim. But maybe this will sum it up for you:

eat one's heart out: hopeless and intense longing for what will never come to pass
eat your heart out: a boastful taunt intended to inspire jealousy and a hopeless and intense longing for what will never come to pass.

Eat your heart out, Noah Webster!

Joe-Ks; Phrases, Cliches, Expressions & Sayings; E, eat one's heart out
American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms, eat one's heart out
Bartleby, eat (one's) heart out
Wiktionary, Eat one's heart out
Urban Dictionary, eat your heart out
Wordsworth Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, eat (one's) heart out
Online Etymology Dictionary, eat one's heart out
Wiki Answers, eat your heart out
Edmund Spenser, The Faerie Queene
My copy of the The Compact Edition of The Oxford English Dictionary, Complete Text Reproduced Micrographically


  1. Posting this on behalf of me pal Mark, who has trouble getting the comments function to work:

    I like Stephen Crane's creepy poem on the subject, and so does your pal Joyce Oates:

    In the desert
    I saw a creature, naked, bestial,
    Who, squatting upon the ground,
    Held his heart in his hands,
    And ate of it.
    I said, "Is it good, friend?"
    "It is bitter--bitter," he answered;
    "But I like it
    Because it is bitter,
    And because it is my heart."

    I like the relish he takes— he likes it more because it's bad for him and not even all that pleasant— which is why he can't stop.


  2. Can I get an "Amen"?


If you're a spammer, there's no point posting a comment. It will automatically get filtered out or deleted. Comments from real people, however, are always very welcome!