Tag Archives: King Henry IV

Got your nose

Yesterday we talked about shooting ourselves in the foot (or is it feet?).  I hope you won’t mind our carrying this idiomatic conversation into a second day, as there’s another expression that goes hand in hand with the foot.

“Don’t cut off your nose to spite your face.”

Haven’t we all been handed this admonition at least once in our lives?  I recall hearing it at as a young girl, too shy to ask what it meant.  I never considered cutting off my nose or spiting my face.  Whatever that meant.   

It’s been a little tricky to pinpoint the origin of Don’t cut off your nose to spite your face.  In looking into it, I stumbled on to some interesting sources, each with a different take on the phrase’s birth.  My, it’s easy to get sidetracked.  I had ordered a copy of the Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, written by Francis Groce in 1796, when I remembered I was in the middle of writing a blog.

The sources agree on what it means to cut off one’s nose to spite one’s face—essentially, to engage in an act of anger or revenge that will hurt you more than it hurts anyone else.  Where it came from is a little fuzzier.

The origin of shooting oneself in the foot, while painful and untidy, is an image we can readily envision, whereas the historical events that involved nose-cutting and face-spiting are almost too gruesome to fathom.

It seems that, in the Middle Ages, there was a group of nuns who cut off their noses to disfigure themselves to become unattractive so they wouldn’t be raped during Viking pillages.

It has also been posited that the idiom was first used in 1593, by a courtier who advised King Henry IV of France not to destroy Paris because of its citizens’ objections to his reign.

Before we move on from body parts, does anyone have a different understanding?

Then there we have it.  We’ve covered the shooting off of feet and the cutting off of noses. I am up to my eyeballs in cultural dictionaries, urban slang and ancient tomes and still can’t seem to wrap my arms around it all.  I stand on the shoulders of all those who have already tackled the question. 

At least my nose is still intact.


Filed under All Things Wordish, Uncategorized