What the heart symbol means

By Oula Mahfouz

“The heart breaks”. This metaphor expresses sorrow, but doctors also acknowledge a “broken heart syndrome”.  A “strong heart” may refer to a healthy heart or strong character. One with a weak heart may be sick or not resilient.

Why does the word hold so many meanings? Many consider the heart a symbol of love, but the heart may also hold love’s opposites, envy, hate, and others. In fact, science shows all emotions originate from the brain.

The current symbolic depiction of the heart originates from depictions of fig leaves and ivy leaves, explaining why the symbol bears no resemblance to anatomical descriptions of the heart. The representation first appeared 3000 years ago.

Ancient peoples considered figs and ivy as symbolic of eternal love. The shape of their leaves resembles our current symbolic representation of the heart. Later, the symbol appeared in the Christian Church in the form of the “heart of Jesus”, connected to the concept of charity.

Today, speakers use the word “heart” in many idioms, not just in German, but also in other languages. In both German and Arabic, one says, “Mein Herz hüpft vor Freude und blutet Trauer“ (in English: “My heart leaps for joy and bleeds sorrow”). One can have a “heavy heart” due to worries, but after the worries are resolved, one may feel “lighthearted”.

The heart also reflects the sorrow of man, as pain grips the heart or gnaws at it. A “weiches oder weißes Herz“ (“soft” or “white” heart) means on is compassionate. A “hartes oder schwarzes Herz” (“hard” or “black” heart”) means one lacks compassion.

When someone “wears their heart on their sleeve”, they clearly display their emotions and may be unable to hide their feelings. A “heart of stone” signifies an evil or cold person, while a “heart of gold” signifies goodness, generosity, and innocence. Something that is “half-hearted” is unconvincing and expresses little effort, while “wholeheartedness” communicates the opposite.

“Das Herz in beide Hände nimmt“ (“taking the heart in both hands”) means overcoming one’s fears. When someone’s heart is in the right place, they are being helpful, friendly, and honest. In German, you could describe them as “herzlich”.

This video explains where the symbolism of the heart came from:


Bild: tünews INTERNATIONAL; Reem Al-Sagheer, 03.01.2021

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