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There are commonly used phrases like "heart of the city" and "heart of the matter". Even to describe the nature of people, we use words like "kind hearted" and "evil hearted".

My question is, why is the emphasis so much on the heart? After all, it is just another organ of the body. In fact, the brain cells and the mind cause the thinking process that make people what they are, what does the heart do? Other languages don't seem to do that, as often.

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    German seems to do it; so does Spanish, so does Polish to an extent; I'm trying to determine whether Hindi does. Traditionally, languages have seen emotions as seated in various organs of the body - the "just another organ of the body" view of organs is a very very recent development. – Matt Gutting Aug 18 '15 at 15:59
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    Historically, the heart was considered to be where all our emotions and thoughts came from. It may be wrong now, but no one knew that in 33CE. It's just naturally permeated our language ever since. – VampDuc Aug 18 '15 at 16:02
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    Core etymonline.com/index.php?term=core – TRomano Aug 18 '15 at 16:06
  • Even if not considered the center of emotion and thought, as VampDuc states, the heart is known to all cultures to be the most critical organ in a vertebrate. Plus it is physically the most central organ. – Hot Licks Aug 18 '15 at 17:47
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    Italians say "cuore d'oro" (heart of gold), "di buon cuore" (good heart/kind) "Nel cuore della notte" (in the heart "middle" of the night) etc. I'm pretty sure French has similar idioms. – Mari-Lou A Aug 18 '15 at 17:51
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In European culture generally, the "heart" is employed as a metaphor for the innermost essence of something, the seat of its vitality. For instance, heartwood is the wood which is closest to the center of the tree, and Conrad's Heart of Darkness is the center of the Congo, the place where both literal and moral dark is deepest.

Only slightly more narrowly, the heart is seen as the seat of emotions and desires, opposed to the brain, seen as the seat of reason and intellect. The French philosopher Descartes, for instance, famously said that "The heart has its reasons which reason does not know".

This is by no means a universal symbolism. Biblical Hebrew, for instance, saw the heart as the seat of will, which has led to considerable misunderstanding of Biblical metaphor. For instance, Europeans who read that Pharaoh "hardened his heart" understand this to mean that he became hostile and merciless toward the Hebrews, when in fact it means something more like he stopped waffling and strengthened his resolve.

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  • And English in turn didn't always, or consistently, use only "heart" for this meaning - the bowels were also considered the seat of emotion in (e.g.) Middle English. – Matt Gutting Aug 18 '15 at 16:18
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    @MattGutting I think that as a matter of fact that one's another loan translation, from the Greek half of the Bible. OED 1 gives Wyclif as the first to use bowel in this sense. – StoneyB on hiatus Aug 18 '15 at 16:25

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