‘Wear Your Heart On Your Sleeve’: Definition, Meaning and Examples

By Sophia Merton, updated on July 19, 2023

Did someone tell you that you 'wear your heart on your sleeve' and you’re wondering what it means? In this article, we’ll take a look at the meaning, origin, examples, and more.

In short:

  • To 'wear your heart on your sleeve' means that you make no secret about your true feelings. You are transparent, open, and honest about your emotions without trying to hide them.

What Does 'Wear Your Heart On Your Sleeve' Mean?

If someone ‘wears their heart on their sleeve,’ it means that they are very open, transparent, and forthright about how they feel. Essentially, ‘wearing your heart on your sleeve’ means that you don’t hide your emotions from other people.

If someone is making themselves vulnerable or, to use another common phrase, 'letting it all hang out,' they are  'wearing their heart on their sleeve.'

Where Does 'Wear Your Heart On Your Sleeve' Come From?

According to some sources, the first recorded use of this idiom shows up in the work of Shakespeare. In his Othello, a tragedy that was written at the start of the 17th century, the primary antagonist Iago says the line, “I will wear my heart upon my sleeve.” Within the context of the tragic story, Iago admits fault and confesses his crimes to the audience, essentially inviting punishment.

Here’s the verse as it is found in Othello:

“‘It is as sure as you are Roderigo,

Were I the Moor, I would not be Iago.

In following him, I follow but myself;

Heaven is my judge, not I for love and duty,

But seeming so, for my peculiar end;

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.’”

The Roots of This Idiom

Though 'wear your heart on your sleeve' shows up in writing for the first time in Shakespeare's Othello, the idea of wearing something on one's sleeve is thought by some to have roots that stretch back even further.

Here are two of the most popular theories, both of which are related to one another:

  1. Soldiers weren't allowed to marry during a certain period of the Roman Empire. This stemmed from the belief that unmarried men made better soldiers. Soldiers would, according to this theory, be paired with women for a year at a time, and at the festival of Juno, they would wear the name of their lady on their sleeves.
  2. When kings would perform jousting matches during the Middle Ages in the king's court, he would choose a woman to whom his performance was dedicated. He would tie the woman's handkerchief or another belonging around his arm. This was a sign that he was acting in defense of that woman's honor.

Examples of This Idiom in Text

Using the Google Books Ngram Viewer, we see that this idiom has become increasingly popular in texts over the past two hundred years.

The 1891 book The Countess Pharamond doesn't just use the idiom, but it also references the Othello passage where it first appeared in writing:

"I wonder if other authors are foolish enough to put themselves and their feelings into their books? I suppose not. It is a veritable 'wearing one's heart on one's sleeve,' and the 'daws' won't spare the pecks.

Another example appears in the novel Round About Rio from 1884:

"As she glanced at him in uncertainty, she met his fine, calm eye; it had so evident a reliance on a reciprocity of feelings, whatever they might be, so simple and candid an enjoyment of the moment, that she was disarmed. 'A little cynicism is not a bad thing,' he suggested; 'it prevents one from wearing one's heart on one's sleeve.'"

For a third example, we look to an 1861 issue of the London Magazine Temple Bar:

"'You can wait outside for a few minutes,' Simon said, sauntering into the dungeon with his hands in his pockets, his hat on one side, and his heart on his sleeve as usual."

Examples of 'Wear Your Heart On Your Sleeve' In Sentences

How would 'wear your heart on your sleeve' be used in a sentence? Let’s take a look at some examples:

  • "Rachael, you can't just walk around wearing your heart on your sleeve."
  • "The famous actress is clearly upset she didn't win the award-- she's well known for wearing her heart on her sleeve."
  • "Everyone knows that you like John, Suzy. Let's face it. You wear your heart on your sleeve."
  • "Jessica comes from a good place and always wears her heart on her sleeve. I know you find her annoying, but please try to be kind to her."
  • "I wish I could wear my heart on my sleeve. At this point in my life, though, it just feels naive."

Other Ways to Say 'Wear Your Heart On Your Sleeve'

What other words and phrases have a similar meaning to 'wear your heart on your sleeve'?

Here are some options:

  • Be an open book: Being an open book means being honest, transparent, and willing to share information about oneself without holding back
  • Lay oneself bare: To lay oneself bare means to expose or reveal one's true feelings
  • Drop one's armor: To drop one's armor means to expose one's vulnerabilities by removing protective or defensive characteristics.
  • Lower one's defenses: Similar to drop one's armor, this means making oneself more susceptible to exposing their vulnerability.
  • Let one's guard down: Similar to drop one's armor and lower one's defenses. This means allowing oneself to be vulnerable.

Quotes Using the Idiom

A number of famous politicians, creatives, public figures, and thinkers have used this idiom in memorable quotes.

Here are some of the most well-known examples:

"To wear your heart on your sleeve isn't a very good plan; you should wear it inside, where it functions best."

- Margaret Thatcher

"Don't wear your heart on your sleeve when your remarks are off the cuff."

- Elvis Costello

"I wear my heart on my sleeve."

- Princess Diana

"Some people wear their heart up on their sleeve. I wear mine underneath my right pant leg, strapped to my boot."

- Ani Difranco

"I'm a wear-my-heart-on-my-sleeve, fall in love-at-first-sight and go with it sort of girl. It's all about having fun with someone and learning how to communicate with someone, in a way that you enjoy."

- Anne Hathaway

Final Thoughts About 'Wear Your Heart On Your Sleeve'

If you 'wear your heart on your sleeve,' it means that you are emotionally open and honest. It's clear to other people how you feel, as you aren't trying to hide it.

This idiom was probably first recorded in Shakespeare's Othello, where the main antagonist uses a similar phrase. However, some sources believe that the concept is much older. They point to historical examples of wearing something on one's sleeve, indicating that one's feelings are exposed to the outside world and known to others. Some theories believe it has to do with Roman festivals where soldiers wore the name of their lady on their sleeves. In contrast, others state that it has to do with jousting knights dedicating their performance to a particular woman.

Are you ready to learn more English phrases and expand your vocabulary? Be sure to check out our idioms blog for idioms, expressions, sayings, and more!

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Written By:
Sophia Merton
Sophia Merton is one of the lead freelance writers for WritingTips.org. Sophia received her BA from Vassar College. She is passionate about reading, writing, and the written word. Her goal is to help everyone, whether native English speaker or not, learn how to write and speak with perfect English.

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