The ❤ in Heart Month

This is the first in a series of posts recognizing American Heart Month.

By Megan Marz

Don’t have plans yet for this Feb. 14? The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) offers the following suggestion: “Make a date with your heart! February is American Heart Month, and Valentine’s Day is a great time to start taking steps to be heart-healthy.” As employees of an institution focused on improving people’s health, we can’t argue with this advice. But it made us wonder: Why does Valentine’s Day, that candy-filled, Cupid-kissed holiday, seem particularly heart-friendly to the CDC? Put another way, why does the organ that pumps our blood bring to mind love and romance?

The Heart as a Symbol

Exploring the origins of such symbolism, the cultural historian Ole M. Høystad points out that love is only one of many emotions the heart represents:

“We talk about being light-hearted, being sick at heart, not having the heart to do something, of losing our heart,” he writes. “… We can find something heartbreaking and have our heart in our mouths; the heart can be squeezed, broken or crushed because we have been struck to the heart. And that the heart has something to do with the intellect can be seen from the expression ‘to learn by heart.’”

According to Høystad’s A History of the Heart, the organ has had such powerful associations since the beginning of recorded history: At a crucial point in the 4,000-year-old Epic of Gilgamesh, the eponymous hero offers a heart to the gods. Among all the internal organs, ancient Egyptians replaced only the heart before sealing back up an embalmed corpse and wrapping it in linen. Aristotle saw the heart as the origin of the other organs and the seat of the soul.

Though we understand today that our brains control our other organs, and though modern cardiology has, in Høystad’s words, “definitively determined our contemporary conception of the heart,” its power as a symbol of warmth and love remains.

Why ?

But when we use the heart as a symbol, it looks nothing like what beats in our chests. It looks, of course, like .

This “elegant, scalloped contour of the Valentine heart is probably the most universal icon in the world,” writes physician and scholar Pierre Vinken in his study of the symbol. “But its shape cannot be derived from observation of an actual heart.”

How, then, did we start using it?  Shapes that resemble the heart icon appeared frequently in antiquity, but Vinken shows that these probably represented leaves or other body parts (such as a human tongue and an elephant’s ear). Only in the Middle Ages did the symbol begin to appear as a representation of the human heart.

It might have resulted from confusion: In 14th-century Europe, knowledge of the heart was limited and imprecise, and an artist or anatomist at the time may have created the shape to reconcile conflicting descriptions of the organ and its function. Over the succeeding centuries, it spread, thanks in part to religious depictions of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and, of course, Valentines.

Recently it even spread to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), which added a new definition: “❤ to heart,” in the sense of I ❤ New York. “This update may be the first English usage to develop via the medium of T-shirts and bumper-stickers,” the OED editors wrote. “… From these beginnings, [to heart] has gone on to live an existence in more traditional genres of literature as a colloquial synonym for ‘to love.’” 

Related information

  • Take Your Health to Heart: Join physicians from Rush on Saturday, Feb. 11, for a free comprehensive program about caring for your heart. Call (888) 352-RUSH to register.

Megan Marz is a writer/editor at Rush University Medical Center.

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