Week of November 14, 2021

Show Some Heart


Many ancient cultures ascribed the heart essential functions beyond just blood pumping. The ancient Egyptians’ word for heart also meant mind, understanding, or intelligence, and the physical heart was weighed for virtue in the afterlife. They believed the brain, by contrast, only functioned to produce mucous. Ancient Chinese also believed the mind and intellect lived in the heart, and ancient Greeks and Romans connected the heart to the strongest emotions, including love. These histories give some clue as to why we still associate the heart with such sentiments in our language.


Medieval knights wore colored ribbons on their sleeves to indicate which lady they fancied and fought for, a practice referenced by Shakespeare when he coined the phrase “to wear your heart on your sleeve.”


Although the word “attack” suggests an unwelcome onslaught, heart attacks are caused by a deficiency of blood to the heart muscle itself. In a given year, the rate of heart attacks typically peaks on Christmas Eve.


The term “from the bottom of my heart” has been used in English since the 16th century, but first came from Virgil’s Aeneid, and appears related to the Greek notion that the most honest and sincere emotions were in the bottom of the heart.


The term “eat your heart out” is quite old, having rough equivalents in Yiddish (“Es dir cys s’harts”), Latin (“cor ne edito”), and even appearing often in Homer’s Iliad. However, the older uses are less like the modern “envy me” and more about worrying oneself greatly.


Your actual beating heart looks much more like an upside-down pear than that shape seen everywhere on Valentine’s Day. One intriguing theory is that the bi-lobed shape came to be associated with love because that was the shape of the seed of the psilphium, a now-extinct plant prized by the Romans as a medical panacea and contraceptive. Alternatively, the shape may have started with the ancient writings of Galen and Aristotle describing the heart as having “three chambers with a small dent in the middle.” Scholars have also argued the origin comes from the shape of ivy or water-lily leaves, human breasts, buttocks, and other body parts.


The heartbeat sound is actually the sound of the heart valves opening and closing as blood enters and exits.