The Origins of Wearing Your Heart on Your Sleeve

Valentine’s Day can be an occasion for quirky expressions of love

Actress Raquel Torres, by Ruth Harriet Louis, 1920s. Courtesy VintageGal

It was during the Roman Empire that St. Valentine is said to have left a note to his jailer’s daughter, “From your Valentine” before his execution on February 14. Today, thanks to St. Valentine, cards expressing one’s heartfelt emotions, a. k. a. valentines, are given to that special someone.

To defer to a classic idiom: It’s a day to wear our heart on our sleeve.

We use the phrase casually, to mean exposing our true emotions, making ourselves vulnerable and letting it all hang out. The phrase is so pervasive that from Ringo Starr to Eminem to Carrie Underwood, those words-turned-lyrics have found their way into a range of musical genres.

Actress June Marlowe.

But, what kind of sleeve? And why on a sleeve and not a pants leg or around your neck? There’s no clear answer. But many legends attempt to get at the heart (it is Valentine’s Day, after all!) of the matter and may explain the source of the saying. The three most popular stories:

1. In the Middle Ages, Emperor Claudius II believed unattached men made better soldiers so he declared marriage illegal. As a concession, he encouraged temporary coupling. Once a year, during a Roman festival honoring Juno, men drew names to determine who would be their lady friend for the coming year. Once established, the man would wear her name on his sleeve for the rest of the festival.

2. Around that same time, it’s speculated, when a knight performed in a jousting match in the king’s court, he’d dedicate his performance to a woman of the court. By tying something of hers, like a handkerchief, around his arm, he’d let the court know the match would defend the honor of that woman.

3. Or, we can credit Shakespeare, where it may have first been recorded in writing:

It is as sure as you are Roderigo,
Were I the Moor, I would not be Iago.
In following him, I follow but myself;
Heaven is my judge, not I for love and duty,
But seeming so, for my peculiar end;
For when my outward action doth demonstrate
The native act and figure of my heart
In complement extern, ’tis not long after
But I will wear my heart upon my sleeve
For daws to peck at. I am not what I am.
Othello, Act 1, Scene 1, 56–65

In the circa 1603 play, Iago confesses to treacherous acts and says that by “wear my heart upon my sleeve,” or truly exposing himself, he’s basically invited black crow-like birds to peck away at him.

Heart-shaped tattoo. Image courtesy of Keltie Colleen

So maybe this Valentine’s Day, forgo the cloying Hallmark cards and flavorless Russell Stover chocolates. Take a risk of letting the “daws” have their way with you by affixing your darling’s name onto your arm. Or better yet, if you really, really mean it, ink it right into your flesh.

Girlfriend wears boyfriend’s photograph on her stockings, 1920s. Image courtesy of Dolores Delargo Towers

One step too far? Okay, how about just plastering pictures of your honey’s face onto your legs to show the world what he really means to you.

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