Skip to main content

Origins of 9 Romantic Idioms and Phrases

  • Author:
  • Updated date:
Like a number of phrases on this list, "falling in love" emerged in the Middle Ages.

Like a number of phrases on this list, "falling in love" emerged in the Middle Ages.

Every Idiom Has an Origin Story

  1. From the Bottom of My Heart
  2. Wear My Heart on My Sleeve
  3. Cut a Rug
  4. Fall in Love
  5. Labor of Love
  6. Have a Crush
  7. Sealed With a Kiss
  8. Head Over Heels
  9. Love is Blind

We use these idioms and phrases all the time. They are part of our daily conversations and we say them as though we know exactly what they mean. But do we really?

Meanings Evolve Over Time

While most of us could probably explain the meaning of these phrases in modern usage, could you explain what they used to mean? The fact is, most of these idioms have evolved over time. They didn't always have romantic connotations.

In fact, these phrases take us through the Middle Ages, ancient Rome, and even ancient Egypt. And while William Shakespeare and the Bible were predictably influential, you might be surprised by some of the less obvious origins.

Let's jump into the love time machine, shall we?

1. From the Bottom of My Heart

Meaning: With sincere love and deep thanks

Origin: Ancient Egyptians believed that the heart was the seat of wisdom, emotions, memory, personality, and the soul itself. In fact, they thought the brain's only function was to be pass mucus to the nose, which is why it was discarded during mummification.

Ancient Greek philosophers like Aristotle built on this idea, believing the heart was the source of life and the center of the nervous system. By the time the phrase reached ancient Rome, poets like Virgil were incorporating it into their work. As he wrote in The Aeneid, his epic poem completed between 29–19 BC, "Then Aeneas truly heaves a deep sigh, from the depths of his heart."

The Heart as Container

Another theory held that the heart is like a container filling up with feeling—again, eluding that the heart controls emotion. This would mean that the bottom of the heart is usually the fullest, like a tank continuously refilling itself. The bottom is never really empty. Hence, the bottom of the heart contains the greatest depth of emotion.

"From the bottom of my heart" is so ubiquitous, it's impossible to find a specific origin story. However, for anyone who grew up in the late 20th century, you heard the phrase thousands of times as the hook in one of Stevie Wonder's most popular songs.

"I Just Called to Say I Love You"

"I Just Called to Say I Love You" wasn't just an American phenomenon. It went #1 in nearly every country in the world. It's remains a staple at weddings and on adult contemporary radio, and is the object of scorn in one of High Fidelity's funniest, meanest scenes.

I linked to the final chorus in the above video because that's all you need to get the point. The entire song pivots on "from the bottom of my heart." And despite the accusations of it being "sentimental tacky crap" by Jack Black's character in the above film, this video has 143 million views! For millions of people, the sentimentality is a feature, not a bug.

"I just called to say I love you
I just called to say how much I care
I just called to say I love you
And I mean it from the bottom of my heart"

2. Wear My Heart on My Sleeve

Meaning: Openly displaying one's emotions

Origin: Like many things based in the English language, you can thank William Shakespeare for the popularity of this phrase. Early on in Othello (c. 1603), Iago confides to Roderigo that he's only serving Othello to serve himself. He knows that if he says and does what he's actually thinking he'll be destroyed.

"I will wear my heart upon my sleeve
For daws to peck at. I am not what I am"

The key to this couplet is knowing that daws are jackdaws, the smallest bird in the crow family. If Iago wears his heart on his sleeve, these birds are going to swoop down and peck away at it. Better that he hide his true self and live to fight another day.

Jousting

But where did Shakespeare learn the phrase? According to a 2013 article in Smithsonian Magazine, the phrase emerged in the Middle Ages.

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.

It's interesting that the meaning in both cases is the same. "Wearing your heart on your sleeve" is a public declaration. You're letting people know exactly where you stand. The difference is that for the jouster this was a noble act, whereas for Iago, it would only lead to betrayal.

3. Cutting a Rug

Meaning: Dancing. To be fair, cutting a rug isn't necessarily romantic, but its origin is in couples dancing, and you'll rarely see unhappy partners cutting a rug together.

Origin: "Cutting a rug" emerged in the 1920s and '30s with African American couples doing the Lindy Hop (aka the jitterbug). This was vigorous, highly athletic dancing that when done continuously in one area made the carpet appear as though it was "cut" or "gashed".

Though long associated with White American culture—Swingers (1996), sock hops, '50s revival, etc.—in fact, the Lindy Hop was invented in the heart of 1920s Black America: Harlem, New York City.

The name of the dance was an homage to Charles Lindbergh (aka "Lindy"), the first pilot to fly over the Atlantic Ocean nonstop, doing so on May 20–21, 1927. It was said he "hopped" the Atlantic.

Prohibition caused many underground clubs to appear in private homes. So when spontaneous dancing arose, rugs and furniture were usually pushed to the side to make room. This would preserve the rug from becoming cut or damaged.

4. Fall in Love

Meaning: Realizing intense feelings of romantic love

Origin: The expression seems to have emerged in the 1500s, with its most popular usage occurring in Edmund Spenser's epic poem, The Faerie Queene. Books I–III were published around 1590, but then reprinted in 1596 with Books IV–VI included. It's in Book IV that we first encounter the fateful phrase.

Both Scudamor and Arthegal
Doe fight with Britomart
He sees her face; doth fall in love,
and soone for her depart
—"Book IV, Canto VI"

Farre passing that, which by surpassing skill
Phidias did make in Paphos Isle of yore,
With which that wretched Greeke, that life forlore
Did fall in loue
—"Book IV, Cant X"

Evolution of Early Modern English

According to the Grammarphobia blog, the 1500s introduced several phrases into the English language where the word "fall" was used to connote passing from one state or condition to another, perhaps suddenly or accidentally, or even against one's will. But those phrases were part of a larger linguistic evolution going on between 1200–1800.

This is how we got “fall to sleep” (1200s) and “fall asleep” (1300s); “fall sick” (1400s); “fall into favor,” “fall in love,” and “fall into trouble,” meaning to get pregnant (all 1500s); “fall lame,” “fall ill,” and “fall back,” meaning to retreat (all 1600s); “fall vacant,” “fall silent,” and “fall flat,” meaning to prove uninteresting or ineffective (all 1800s).

"St. Paul Writing His Epistles with John Colet," artist unknown (1506)

"St. Paul Writing His Epistles with John Colet," artist unknown (1506)

5. Labor of Love

Meaning: Work done for love and passion, not money

Origin: This expression first appeared in English in the King James Version of the Bible, published in 1611. It appears in two Epistles of St. Paul.

Remembering without ceasing your work of faith, and labour of love, and patience of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ, in the sight of God and our Father.
—1 Thessalonians 1:3

For God is not unrighteous to forget your work and labour of love, which ye have shewed toward his name, in that ye have ministered to the saints, and do minister.
Hebrews 6:10

In the context of the Bible, "labor" means service and commitment to Jesus and "love" is Christian love. This isn't romantic love. However, "labor of love" migrated into secular culture and took root.

The phrase generally means pursuing an activity or hobby, not for profit, but out of pure passion (i.e. for the love of the game). In this usage, "labor of love" is romantic, but not in the love sense of the term. Rather, it's the romance of idealized reality.

6. Have a Crush

Meaning: Extreme infatuation with someone

Origin: In an August 2011 article exploring the origins of "crushing on" someone, writer Warren Clements says:

Crush entered English by 1398, possibly from the Old French verb croissir, which meant to break or crack and make a lot of noise doing so. The element of noise was soon lost to another verb, crash.

The romantic sense of crush was first recorded in the 1884 journal of Isabella Maud Rittenhouse. It referred to the object of the infatuation: "Wintie is weeping because her crush is gone." Within a decade, crush described the infatuation itself.

"I've Got a Crush on You"

The mainstreaming of "crush" in American pop culture was no doubt via composers George and Ira Gershwin. In 1928, they wrote the song "I've Got a Crush on You" for the musical Treasure Girl (1928).

It was so popular that they revived it for Strike Up the Band in 1930—the only Gershwin song to be used in two different Broadway productions.

"I've Got a Crush on You" subsequently became part of the standard repertoire for jazz singers, with Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, and Sarah Vaughan all recording memorable versions.

"The world will pardon my mush
'Cause I've got a crush, my baby, on you"

During World War 2, it was common to see letters with lipstick imprints and the acronym SWAK (or SWALK) outside the envelope. It stood for "sealed with a (loving) kiss." Not much has changed since, but the origins of this phrase are far less romantic

During World War 2, it was common to see letters with lipstick imprints and the acronym SWAK (or SWALK) outside the envelope. It stood for "sealed with a (loving) kiss." Not much has changed since, but the origins of this phrase are far less romantic

7. Sealed With a Kiss

Meaning: Written and sent with love

Origin: While the contemporary usage of "sealed with a kiss" suggests perfume-scented love letters, the phrase's origins are anything but romantic. Long before the average European was literate, they needed to sign legal documents.

Instead of writing their names, men signed signed with the Christian X, symbolizing that the parties involved were entering the agreement in good faith.
They then kissed the X, completing the deal, or "sealing it with a kiss." In her article, "Kissing in the Middle Ages," Christine Axen puts this medieval kiss in a context that will resonate for modern readers:

In a 1439 petition to King Henry VI, members of Parliament requested that the kiss be omitted due to the Black Death, an “infirmity most infective,” if the king “desir[es] the health and welfare” of his people and himself.

They sought confirmation that even without the kiss to seal the deal, those performing homage could trust that “at your will the homage [would be] of the same force as though they kissed you.”

World War II

Once we reach the Second World War (1939–45), the idea of sealing something with a kiss had evolved into a purely romantic gesture. Since writing letters to servicemen was considered patriotic, wives and girlfriends began incorporating acronyms into their letters.

While some of these acronyms were surprisingly R-rated!, it was common to see soldiers and sweethearts write SWAK or SWALK on the back of an envelope. The letter was “Sealed With a (Loving) Kiss,” and women occasionally added an actual lipstick imprint.

8. Head Over Heels

Meaning: Feelings of confusion or dizziness for a lover

Origin: This phrase is interesing because it started out as "heels over head" in the Middle English of the late 14th century, which makes more intuitive sense. It meant to turn a somersault or having overwhelming feelings of joy. It also meant being upside down and not able to do anything, as love can make us feel sometimes.

Linguists and etymologists haven't figured out why "heels over head" turned into "head over heels", but it seems to have occurred sometime during the 1700s. That said, both expressions existed side by side for the next two hundred years.

Davy Crockett used "head over heels" in his 1834 autobiography, whereas L. Frank Baum consistently used "heels over head" in his Oz series, which was a staple of early 20th century America.

Tears for Fears

However, for anyone born in the last 50 years, it's hard not to hear the phrase and think of anything but Tears for Fears. Their song "Head Over Heels" was a massive hit in 1985, and if you thought it was a forgotten relic of the '80s, nearly 85 million views says otherwise!

9. Love Is Blind

Meaning: You love who you love regardless of logic

Origin: Just like "wear my heart on my sleeve," this phrase was popularized by William Shakespeare. It appears in several of his late 16th century plays including Two Gentlemen of Verona and Henry V. However, its most famous usage is in The Merchant of Venice.

"Love is blind, and lovers cannot see
The pretty follies that themselves commit,
For if they could Cupid himself would blush
To see me thus transformed to a boy"

Netflix Reality Show

The phrase has gone mainstream in recent years with the massive popularity of the Netflix show of the same name. Love is Blind posits itself as a social experiment where single men and women look for love and get engaged, all before meeting in person.

The Brink, a publication devoted to Boston University research, says love blindness is a bit of a misnomer. Couples in love—or at least attracted to one another—often share similar backgrounds or upbringing.

According to Nancy J. Smith-Hefner, a linguistic anthropologist at BU, “What we sometimes might think of as ‘love at first sight,’ or ‘blind love,’ can in fact be that we’re focusing on cues that the person is projecting that say something about their background and upbringing.”

Closing Thoughts

The next time you use a romantic figure of speech, remember that it has its own origin story. All English idioms and figures of speech came from somewhere, usually the Bible or William Shakespeare.

Sometimes these phrases are a matter of common knowledge, but other times their histories are obscure. Love is funny thing and so is the English language.

Sources

1. From the Bottom of My Heart

"How the Heart Became the Symbol of Love, Lust and the Soul," Discover Magazine, Kate Golembiewski, February 6, 2021

2. Wear My Heart on My Sleeve

"The Origins of Wearing Your Heart on Your Sleeve," Smithsonian Magazine, Emily Spivack, February 14, 2013

3. Cut a Rug

"The ‘Lindy Hop’ Dance Goes Public," The African American Registry – The most comprehensive on-line database resource of African American history in the world.

4. Fall in Love

"Why do we say 'to fall in love'? Is it something unwished for?," English Language & Usage Stack Exchange – A question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. The best answers are voted up and rise to the top

"Falling in love again," Grammarphobia, Patricia T. O’Conner and Stewart Kellerman, August 13, 2013

5. Labor of Love

"What's a 'labour of love'?," English Language & Usage Stack Exchange

6. Have a Crush

"Feeding love by the spoonful," Warren Clements, Globe and Mail, August 26, 2011

7. Sealed With a Kiss

"Kissing in the Middle Ages," Medievalists.net, Christine Axen, February 2022

"WWII Sweethearts ‘Sexted’ With Bawdy Acronyms," History.com, Becky Little, February 13, 2019

8. Head Over Heels

"head over heels (adv.)," Etymonline.com – Online etymological resource. Literally, the history of words.

"TWTS: Something happened and 'heels over head' went 'head over heels,'" Michigan Radio, Anne Curzan and Rebecca Kruth, December 8, 2019

9. Love is Blind

"'Love Is Blind’, Meaning & Context," No Sweat Shakespeare – An online resource for William Shakespeare, designed to make The Bard accessible to modern audiences.

"Is Love Blind?," The Brink, Jessica Colarossi, March 11, 2020

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2014 Autumn

Comments

jamilu Adamu Danwayye on February 22, 2020:

Masterpiece! i love this piece of knowledge, craving for more.

!!! on January 04, 2017:

1. it's the Bible, with the capital letter.

2. There is NOTHING in it about St. Andrew's death!

Autumn (author) from Central New Jersey on January 07, 2014:

Annart, this is one article that I'm particularly proud of since I teach Language Arts to 7th Graders. I wish I could inspire my students to be as curious as I am. Thank you for your comment.

Ann Carr from SW England on January 07, 2014:

Our language is so rich and so many of our idioms come from Shakespeare! 'Crush' is still used to mean a dense crowd of people but not for a dance - that was one I did not know.

An interesting, informative hub. Off to have a look at your profile.

Autumn (author) from Central New Jersey on January 05, 2014:

Frantisek78, your welcome. I had fun doing the research. Thanks for the positive feedback.

frantisek78 on January 05, 2014:

This is very interesting! Thanks for pointing these out, as most people have no clue, or even care to look into where common terms and phrases come from. Also, this was very good: "(XXX became extreme kissing, if you know what I mean.)" :) Voted up.