Was studying a biblical reference to "phylacteries" located in Matthew 23:5. I researched this word in one of my favorite sources for such questions, that is at Chabad.org http://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/142435/jewish/Wrapping-the-Mind-and-Heart.htm

They point out that Phylacteries, also known as "Tefillin" refers to the little boxes worn during morning prayers during the week. One is specifically strapped to the sleeve of the upper arm, exactly positioned so that when the arm is bent, reading, the box is right next to the heart.

These boxes are to bind with Mind and Heart with our deeds. Here's a direct quote from the instructions of how to put these on your head and sleeve:

"Focus on what you’re doing. From the time you make the blessing until both tefillin are in place, do not talk. Don’t even wink. Just concentrate on hooking up your mind, heart and deeds, and binding them to G‑d."

In conclusion, the Jewish person in prayer, wearing the tefillin, is "wearing his heart on his sleeve."

Or... is this just a fanciful coincidence.... You tell me...

  • Given that it's an old and wide-spread idiom, probably including many peoples who were quite antisemitic, it seems unlikely that it has a strong Jewish link. – Hot Licks Nov 4 '17 at 20:23

Shakespeare (in Othello) appears to have been the first to use "wear ones heart upon one's sleeve."

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.

This may be a variant on "pinning one's [soul, belief] on one's sleeve," suggested by another answer.

Given that the Jews had been expelled from England in 1290, and were not permitted to return (or come out of hiding) until well after Shakespeare's time, it seems unlikely to have Jewish origins.

| improve this answer | |
  • 2
    Just to play Devil’s advocate, Shakespeare is known for bringing various phrases from French, say, into the English language. He wasn’t necessarily limited to English idioms. So could he perhaps have translated a saying from another country where Jews weren’t so suppressed? – Obie 2.0 Nov 5 '17 at 5:16
  • 2
    Also, if the phrase has a Biblical origin (i.e. based on the passages about tefillin), it would in a sense have a Jewish origin, while not necessarily coming directly from the English Jewish population. – Obie 2.0 Nov 5 '17 at 5:19
  • @Obie2.0: good points. I think it's very likely that wear my heart upon my sleeve came from Shakespeare's alteration of pin my [self/soul/faith/belief] on someone's sleeve, which in turn came from the custom of mediaeval knights wearing lady's favours on their arms. But I could be wrong. – Peter Shor Nov 12 '17 at 15:48

It seems that, metaphorically, many things can be 'pinned' to one's sleeve :- the soul, the self, one's faith, virtue itself and Gentility.

So I would think that it is a general idiom and not related, specifically, to the custom which places an item on the sleeve near the heart.

OED-3 (subscription required) :-

e. to pin..on, upon, or to one's sleeve: see pin v.1 4b. Hence †to pin one's sleeve upon (obs.). Also, †to attach, assign, or attribute (something) to a person.

(a) 1585 Abp. E. Sandys Serm. i. 10 How sharply are the Corinthians taken vp by the Apostle, for pinning themselues vpon mens sleeues, saying, I am of Paul, and I of Apollos?

1599 Life Sir T. More in C. Wordsworth Eccl. Biogr. (1853) II. 149 I never intended to pinne my soule to another mans sleeve.

1632 R. Sanderson 12 Serm. 295 We may not..build our faith upon them.., nor pin our belief upon their sleeves.

1684 N. S. tr. R. Simon Crit. Enq. Editions Bible 171 Yet am I not such a one as to pin my sleeve so passionately upon St. Jerome as every where to approve his Errors.

1712 M. Henry Popery in Wks. (1853) II. 342/1 They require men..to pin their faith upon the pope's sleeve.

1831 The Remembrancer 198 Men who pin their faith on the sleeve of their neighbour.

1873 J. G. Holland Arthur Bonnicastle i. 35 I pinned my faith to my father's sleeve, and believed as fully and as far as he did.

(b) c1616 R. C. Times' Whistle (1871) ii. 784 Proud meacocke, make the world no more believe Gentility is pind vpon thy sleeve.

1642 Milton Apol. Smectymnuus in Wks. (1851) III. 289 What of other mens faults I have pinn'd upon his sleeve, let him shew.

1668 H. More Divine Dialogues (1713) ii. xxi. 157 It seems a kind of disparagement, to pin Vertue and Divine Grace upon the sleeves of them that are unwilling to receive it.

| improve this answer | |

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.