I have always found the phrase "a man after my own heart" very endearing. It expresses a fond kinship in a charming way.

However, there are (at least) two meanings of the word after that would make sense in this phrase.

One is after in the sense of in imitation of someone, in other words, "your heart takes after or resembles my own."

The other is in the sense of following or pursuant, as in "you are attempting to win my affection."

My question is, which meaning of "after" is intended in this expression?

  • 2
    From your question, it is not clear to me if you clicked the "+ EXPAND" in your own link for after. The 10th meaning was "according to the nature of; in conformity with; in agreement or unison with: He was a man after my own heart. He swore after the manner of his faith."
    – prash
    Sep 3 '11 at 20:45

I think it depends on the context you use it, and what you intend by it, for sure, it could be used either way in common speech. As the commenter pointed out it is originally from the Bible in reference to God's view of King David, a man after God's own heart. (1Samuel 13:14 and Acts 13:22 if you are interested.) In both cases the exact meanings of the Greek and Hebrew prepositions (le and kata respectively) are pretty broad, however, the context makes it clear that the meaning was basically "a man who seeks the same goals and desires that I have."

However, I don't think the origins are sufficiently well known to give a firm and clear meaning to the idiom, so I think it can pretty much be used in any way that the grammar and semantics allow, including your two options.

  • Is this expression the same in both Greek and Hebrew? Or are there differences in nuance? (And I thought kata was Greek?)
    – Kit Z. Fox
    Sep 3 '11 at 20:00
  • 3
    No, the wording is rather different, even in English. However, I think the English reference is more to Acts since English readers tend to be more familiar with the New Testament. Here the meaning is clear since the verse continues: "a man after mine own heart, which shall fulfil all my will." The Greek "kata" here with the accusative means "in accordance with, or corresponding to." Which seems to fit pretty well. My Hebrew is weak, but from my understanding the preposition used is pretty broad in meaning.
    – Fraser Orr
    Sep 3 '11 at 20:43

The Phrase Doctor gives both the meaning and apparent origins of the phrase, writing that:

Meaning A kindred spirit - someone I can agree with.

Further, this meaning is by most accounts from the King James version of the Bible.

Based on this meaning--that it means "a kindred spirit"--then after seems to take on this rarer meaning listed in the OED:

  • In compliance with the wishes of.


c1395 Chaucer Wife of Bath's Tale 406 And eek I pray to Jhesus schort her lyves, That wil nought be governed after her wyves [6– text bi].

a1500 (1460) Towneley Plays (1994) I. xxii. 278 Pylate, do after vs, And dam to deth Iesus.

As these examples were written both before and after the King James Bible (which was written in 1611), this is likely the same use of after as was found there.

The OED also explains that the use of heart here is one that is now obsolete, meaning:

Intent, will, purpose, inclination, desire. Obs. exc. in phr. after one's own heart.

So to be after one's own heart means that someone is in compliance with one's own intent, will, or inclination. This, in current use, is the same as being "someone I can agree with". To be in compliance with one's own will means that someone is in agreement with one's own will.

  • 1
    Whatever the intent of the phrase at its authoring, the question is about what the phrase means now, and current users do not intend the idea of "to follow as a leader, in obedience." The phrase is meant to indicate harmony of purpose, intent, feeling or sentiment. Sep 4 '11 at 4:22
  • @Kyle I understand that. Please see my last paragraph, which I updated to make clearer my derivation's results. If there is something I should add, I am more than happy to.
    – simchona
    Sep 4 '11 at 4:24
  • Sorry -- cross-posted. I'm still new, and edited too long. You say that "after takes on [an] obsolete meaning of the OED." But "obsolete" means "not used any more", and yet you base the rest of your derivation on this. There is no "compliance" intended in the modern usage; while the phrase can be used of a leader to a follower (Captain to a Sergeant), it can also be used of an equal to an equal (Private to a Private), or of a follower to a leader (Sergeant to a Captain). Sep 4 '11 at 4:25
  • OK -- will renew. Sorry again, was still trying to catch up. Sep 4 '11 at 4:26
  • 1
    Yes; though i personally would have refrained from the word "compliance", I think it's much better. Sep 4 '11 at 4:32

The first definition of after fits better, given the usual meaning of the expression:

A kindred spirit - someone I can agree with.

So it is saying that your interests/values closely resemble the other's.

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