Why Do People Wear Their Hearts on Their Sleeves?

(Last Updated On: February 15, 2022)

Ever met someone who is pretty transparent with their feelings, you’ve probably described them as “wearing their heart on their sleeve.” Well maybe you didn’t, if you don’t really use the expression already you may have used a different one, but just humor us on that. All that aside, it probably doesn’t seem healthy to put a critical organ on your arm but you do you. It is an interesting question though. Why do people wear their hearts on their sleeves?


You thought that just because you’re not taking a high school English class anymore that you didn’t have to see the name “Shakespeare” anymore? Think again, because the first recorded use of wearing one’s heart on their sleeve probably came from the guy. The idiom appears in Othello, which was probably penned some time around 1603. Broad strokes, Othello takes place during the Ottoman-Venetian War and follows the titular Othello and his subordinate Iago. Othello’s a military leader, and Iago is real angry Othello promoted a younger person before himself. Iago manipulates Othello, to the point where Othello resolves to kill his own wife. It’s a tragedy, so things don’t end well.

Pretty early on in the play, Iago is talking with a guy named Roderigo. He tells him the following

“For when my outward action doth demonstrate

The native act and figure of my heart

In compliment 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.”

Iago’s treachery hasn’t been made too clear yet, but he’s saying that once his true colors are revealed he feels that he will be left vulnerable. Were Iago to be revealed, his heart would be freely open for ridicule. Quite literally, he’s telling Roderigo that he is not who he seems to be. 


Now you probably realize that if Shakespeare is using the “heart on sleeve” imagery, then that means the idiom likely predates the 1600s. Unfortunately, we don’t have something super concrete to give us an origin like a guy sitting down and going “ah yes, we’re going to start saying that when you wear your heart on your sleeve, it means that you are being emotionally vulnerable.” Unless you count Shakespeare’s Othello, which is fair.

But, the running theory lies in jousting. You know, that thing where knights would go at each other on horses in martial combat. The goal would be to knock the other guy off their horse. Alternatively, you could break their lance or shield. 

If you know anything about knights, it’s that they’re really into chivalry–and what better way to impress a woman in the Middle Ages than charging at another heavily armored guy on a horse? Of the many ways to show affection, knights would sometimes have wrapped ribbons or some other kind of item of affection around the sleeves of their armor. Kind of a way to say “hey, I’m about to eat 3.25 times my body weight in g-force to the chest just for you.” 

So knights were literally wearing their affection on their sleeves–and at some point the imagery became the idiom we have today. Though being emotionally vulnerable is probably a lot easier in full plate armor. Try that next time you have to have a serious conversation with your partner we guess. 

Speaking of Shakespeare, see if you know all of those tragedies here.



About Kyler 685 Articles
Kyler is a content writer at Sporcle living in Seattle, and is currently studying at the University of Washington School of Law. He's been writing for Sporcle since 2019; sometimes the blog is an excellent platform to answer random personal questions he has about the world. Most of his free time is spent drinking black coffee like water.