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What does this phrase mean and where does it originate? How does putting one's hand on one's heart (at least on the region of chest where your heart is) achieve anything?

The phrase is usually extended to something like 'put your hand on your heart and tell me truthfully that ...'.

I think it is because if you put your hand on your heart when you say something that has a significant meaning, you can feel any fluctuations in your heart beat caused by lying, i.e. a primitive form of the lie detector.

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    Why the down vote? – Kris Mar 28 '15 at 5:41
  • Even as I am still trying to ferret out the antecedents of this gesture/ origin of the convention/ etymology of the idiom, let's keep the Q open for more inputs from other members. – Kris Mar 28 '15 at 6:02
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    It's always preferable to wait at least a few hours before accepting the first answer posted. That way you're giving someone else the chance to post their answer which might be more comprehensive, and include some information on the etymology. – Mari-Lou A Mar 28 '15 at 6:18
  • i can't see that anyone is going to improve on @Kris 's answer – JonMark Perry Mar 28 '15 at 6:22
  • Well, in your question title you did ask for its origin.... – Mari-Lou A Mar 28 '15 at 6:23
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It's an idiom.

put your hand on your heart (TFD)

if you can put your hand on your heart and say something, you can say it knowing that it is the truth I couldn't put my hand on my heart and say I'd never looked at another man.

And a standard gesture

  • during the Pledge of Allegiance (US)

I give my heart and my hand to my country, one country, one language, one flag. (The Balch salute, see Wikipedia Pledge of Allegiance)

  • to indicate "Thank you"

Incidentally,

In the U.S., people are asked to put their right hand over their heart during the Pledge of Allegiance as a sign of respect. That gesture, it turns out, can do more than just symbolize dignity and honor. According to new research, when we place our hands over our hearts we tend to be more honest with others. (Smithsonian)

And,

She laid her hand upon her heart and felt the crackle of his letter inside her blouse. (Grace Livingston Hill, A Voice in the Wilderness)

  • how do you equate PYHOYH to telling the truth? – JonMark Perry Mar 28 '15 at 5:21
  • @JonMarkPerry It's not "equated," merely suggested/ symbolically gestured/ communicated silently ... Conventions originating perhaps in liturgy, perhaps in mannerisms/ etiquette from royal courts ... – Kris Mar 28 '15 at 5:53
  • is it 'to feel your heart beat'? – JonMark Perry Mar 28 '15 at 5:55
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    (In christian culture,) you swear on something that is valuable to you, thereby putting it at stake if you lie. For example, you swear on your mother's grave (i.e. her salvation), the bible (i.e. your own salvation, and being part of your social context where that is entirely christian), or your heart (i.e. your life, cf. "cross my heart and hope to die"). Still digging for sources for that. This question seems related, but maybe it's all bollocks. – Ulrich Schwarz Mar 28 '15 at 6:09
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    Idiom: an expression in the usage of a language that is peculiar to itself either grammatically (as no, it wasn't me) or in having a meaning that cannot be derived from the conjoined meanings of its elements (as ride herd on for “supervise”) It's not an idiom -- it's simply a description of a physical action, and the words have no figurative meaning. As you demonstrate above, there is no single form of the phrase, but it can be reworded in any fashion that conveys the requested action. – Hot Licks Mar 28 '15 at 12:53
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In the United States, there is a long association between putting your hand over your heart and affirming something sincerely. Most notably, when people in the United States say the pledge of allegiance or sing the national anthem, they are encouraged to salute the flag either by putting their right hand over their heart or (if they are in military uniform) by saluting it military-style with a rigid right hand touching their forehead.

In Google Books search results, the right hand over heart gesture appears to go back to at least 1920 in connection with affirmations. (It can be traced to 1870 in newspaper accounts; see below.) From The Bridgemen's Magazine (October 1920):

Conductor. Mr President, allow me to present to you Mr. ------, who wishes to become a member of our Union.

President (two raps of the gavel). You will please place your right hand over your heart and repeat after me using your name where I use mine. (Insert Obligation.)

A slightly different gesture was used by the Knights of Labor and the Brotherhood of Railroad Carmen of America. From "Installation Ceremony," in Knights of Labor Illustrated (1886):

Installing Officer—Each of you will place your left hand over your heart and raise your right hand.

Installing Officer—You will, each of you, repeat the following pledge: ...

From Biennial Convention of the Brotherhood Railway Carmen of America (1905) [combined snippets]:

In rising to the positions of the various offices of this lodge, you have done well, but if you rise in the performance of your duties you will do better. You will now place your left hand over your heart and raise your right hand, and repeat after me, etc. (Not for the public.)

And from Proceedings of the Thirteenth Convention of the Brotherhood of Railway Carmen of America (1917) [combined snippets]:

We recommend the following as the obligation for candidates:

President to candidates: Place your left hand over your heart and raise your right hand and repeat after me: "I (pronounce your name) do hereby most sincerely promise and swear that I will keep secret all of the transactions of this organization, and will not reveal any of them to any person or persons unless I know them to be members of this organization and entitled to such information.

Rather disturbingly, the same left-hand-on-heart, right-hand-raised posture was used by the Ku Klux Klan in its oath of allegiance ritual during the 1920s. From The Ku-Klux Klan: Hearings Before the House Committee on Rules (October 13, 1921):

You will place your left hand over your heart and raise your right hand to heaven.

OATH OF ALLEGlANCE.

SECTION 1. Obedience. — You will say "I," pronounce your full name, and repeat after me: "In the presence of God and man, most solemnly pledge, promise, and swear, unconditionally, that I will faithfully obey the constitution and laws and will willingly conform to all regulations, usages, and requirements of the [Ku Klux Klan] which do now exist or which may be hereafter enacted, and will render at all times loyal respect and steadfast support to the imperial authority of same, and will heartily heed all official mandates, decrees, edicts, rulings, and instructions of the I[mperial] W[izard] thereof.

In 1942, the U.S. Congress adopted the original pledge of allegiance—the one without "under God" between "one nation" and "indivisible"—for private citizens. According to the Wikipedia article on the pledge of allegiance, the U.S. Flag Code specifies that the pledge

should be rendered by standing at attention facing the flag with the right hand over the heart. When not in uniform, men should remove any non-religious headdress with their right hand and hold it at the left shoulder, the hand being over the heart. Persons in uniform should remain silent, face the flag, and render the military salute.

So the prescribed pledge posture follows the Bridgemen's Union model, not the Brotherhood of Railway Carmen model. For many years during the Cold War, public school students began the school day by placing their right hands over their hearts and reciting the pledge of allegiance.

It should be clear from decades of solemn oaths with hands over hearts that the gesture is seen as part of an attitude of sincerity and commitment accompanying important affirmations.


Update (September 27, 2017): 'hand on your heart' in old newspapers

I decided to revisit my answer to this question by checking newspaper databases for earlier instances of "hand on your heart"—and I found examples going back to the 1820s, in both the United States and Australia.

From "Rules Against Slander," the [Corydon] Indiana Gazette, reprinted from the Connecticut Mirror (August 30, 1821):

Let it always be a maxim with you that it costs you nothing, and that it is the smallest favor you can show your neighbor, to speak well, or at least, not evil of him, particularly in public places. When you find an inclination in yourself to defame another, lay your hand on your heart and ask yourself whether you have not merited the same or a worse reprehension.

From a letter dated May 8, 1826 to the editor of the Sydney [New South Wales] Gazette (May 13, 1826):

In the mean time, I do solemnly invite yon to a conscientious retrospect of your well known conduct, only a few years since, and I would then ask you, if, laying your hand on your heart, in the presence of the Judge of all hearts, you can dare repeat, "Faults we have, but we never had any of that description which could expose us to public detestation, or render our name notorious for the gross inconsistency and depravity of our lives."

From "Gen. Harrison—and the Richmond Whig," in the Richmond [Virginia] Enquirer (August 26, 1836):

The fact is, you are aware that your party is obliged to suffer defeat in the ensuing election, and you do not wish to sacrifice one of your strong men in the contest. Here lies the whole secret; and I dare you to come out, and, with your hand on your heart, deny the fact.

And (in an instance where the right hand is first specified) from "The Dead Boxer," in the [Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania] Daily Morning Post (December 20, 1842):

Suppose I say it is?

Ay! but I won't suppose that, till you lay your right hand on your heart, and declare as an honest man, that—tut, man—this is nonsense.

Another article favors the left hand. From "Beriah, Again," in the Red Bluff [California] Independent (December 22, 1864):

"Iole! Iole! I am a ruined man, and now, after all conspiracies and machinations to procure my legal hanging have failed, and a young 30 has disturbed my communications, nothing will answer but that some villainous member of the 31 shall assassinate me!" Wretched old 56! to fear a half-crazed 30! Do not shake so in your shrunken boots, nor place your left hand on your heart, with the right high in air; no friend of the 31 will stab or shoot you in the back.

This left hand on heart, right hand in air posture is the one we saw earlier in the Knights of Labor, Railway Carmen, and KKK initiation rites.

Two other early instances of "hand on your heart" appear in the context of rituals that resemble pledges of allegiance. From "Third Ward Republican Club," in the [Washington, D.C.] Evening Star (April 30, 1870):

I got their [the Know Nothing Council's] secrets, and got them to you without price. You go to the door and give two raps, and a fellow inside will say, "Who comes here?" to which you answer, "I am one," and you are admitted. You then give three raps at the second door, and the same question is asked, to which you answer "I am one of them." Then you are with the fellows on the inside. The way they initiate is this. You get down on your left knee thus, (illustrating;) place your right hand on your heart, and raise your left, (suiting the action to the word,) and then you take an obligation that you are opposed to foreigners for office, and to the present incumbent of the Mayor's office.

From "Opposed to Catholics: The American Protective Association and Its Purposes," in the Indianapolis [Indiana] News (April 19, 1893):

THE FOURTH OATH

The candidate is conducted to the chaplain, on right of president. ...

Chaplain—Sergeant-at-arms, I am pleased to hear so favorable a report, and the confidence with which you make it. {To the candidate.} Place your right hand on your heart, repeat your name and remain silent.

I do most solemnly promise and swear that I will not allow any one a member of the Roman Catholic to become a member of this order, knowing him to be such; that I will use my influence to promote the interests of all Protestants everywhere in the world; that I win not employ a Roman Catholic in any capacity if I can procure the services of a Protestant; ...


Conclusions

It appears that placing one's hand over one's heart as part of a ritualized oath of allegiance goes back in the United States at least to 1870; and that placing one's hand over one's heart to affirm that what one says is true goes back in the United States to at least 1821. The latter is not a gesture exclusive to the United States, however. I noted above an instance of the same gesture mentioned in n Australian newspaper from 1826, and Edward Bulwer-Lytton mentions it in one of his Pelham novels. From Eugene Aram (1832):

"Much of your nature belies this crime. — You are wise, calm, beneficent to the distressed. Revenge, passion, — nay, the sharp pangs of hunger, may have urged to one deed; but your soul is not wholly hardened : nay, I think I would so far trust you, that, if at this dread moment, — the clay of Madeline Lester scarce yet cold, woe busy and softening at your breast, and the son of the murdered dead before you; — if at this moment you can lay your hand on your heart, and say, ' Before God, and at peril of my soul, I am innocent of this deed,' I will depart, — I will believe you, and bear, as bear I may, the reflection that, in any way I have been one of the unconscious agents of condemning to a fearful death an innocent man! ..."

Somewhere in there, Bulwer-Lytton has inserted a request by one character that another character take an oath, with hand on heart to mark its solemnity.

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    Minor quibble, what happened in '42 was the adoption by Congress of the "Flag Code". In it, the Pledge became official, and the salute was changed from the Bellamy Salute to the hand over the heart salute. – Phil Sweet Sep 27 '17 at 22:01
  • @PhilSweet: Oh my goodness—the Bellamy salute is ... quite something. At least the government managed to avoid replacing it with the Klan salute, although not by much. – Sven Yargs Sep 27 '17 at 22:10
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wikipedia just leads to Kylie - Hand on your heart

For idioms, Wikipedia isn't necessarily the best place to look in.

If you assume you're dealing with an idiomatic expression, go to Google Books and search for this whole search expression:

"hand on your heart" idiom

This will find many idiom dictionaries describing the idiom that are stored at Google Books, e.g.

Dynamic Memory Idioms and Phrases: Tarun Chakravarty - 2015

Put your hand on your heart: If you can out your hand on your heart, then you can say something knowing it to be true.

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Traditionally the heart is considered the core of the body, central to the person and to their continued ability to live. In a way, putting your hand on your heart while affirming something is an indicator of how seriously your words should be taken, a bit like swearing on the Bible. Among the extended senses of "heart" in the OED are "the seat of life; the vital part or principle; (in some contexts) life itself" and "that part of the front of the body which is near to the heart; the vicinity of the heart; the chest. Esp. with reference to the action of placing or holding something close to this location as an expression or gesture of affection, esteem, etc., or for comfort".

The term "hand on heart" goes back at least as far as the 16th century. The OED has this:

to put one's hand on one's heart, to put one's hand on one's heart and variants: to adopt a position of honesty and sincerity. Also hand on heart: honestly, truly.

Among the attestations are:

1566 W. Painter Palace of Pleasure I. xlvi. f. 265v I am assured that laying your hand vpon your heart, you will accuse your self..of that newe ingratitude.

1699 T. Brown Colloquies Erasmus iv. 27 Put your Hand to your Heart and tell me fairly.

1746 Gentleman's Mag. Aug. 399/2 I can lay my hand on my heart, and say, that the greatest injury I ever did was to myself.

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