A heart of gold or a heart of stone? (‘Heart’ senses and phrases, Part 1)

A foil wrapped heart on a pink background with lots of hearts.
Jennifer A Smith/Moment/GettyImages

by Kate Woodford

The word ‘heart’ is used a tremendous lot in English. As you might imagine, it’s often used to say things about love and emotions, but it has other less predictable meanings too. In this three-part post, I’ll look at the way we use this word, focusing on its various senses and a range of ‘heart’ idioms and phrases. As ever, I’ll present language that is current and useful.

Let’s start by looking at some interesting collocations relating to the organ itself. If your heart beats quickly and forcefully, especially because you’re scared or nervous, you can say it pounds, thumps or bangs:

I could feel my heart pounding as I waited to go on stage.

My heart was banging against my ribcage.

The verb race conveys that your heart is beating very quickly:

If I drink too much coffee, my heart starts racing.

If your heart beats quickly and irregularly, often through fear or excitement, you can say it flutters or it skips/misses a beat:

My heart fluttered when he walked in the room.

‘Heart’ can also be used to refer to the area of the chest that is nearest the heart:

He sang the national anthem with his hand on his heart.

Moving on from the organ, ‘heart’ features in a lot of common idioms and phrases for saying that someone is kind, (sometimes despite not appearing this way). For example, we say that a kind person has a big/good/kind heart:

She can be a bit odd, but she’s got a good heart.

Matthew has a big heart and I love that about him.

We also say that someone’s heart is in the right place, meaning that they are basically good and kind even though their behaviour sometimes suggests they are not:

Tom can be a bit argumentative but his heart’s definitely in the right place.

The phrase a heart of gold is often used in a similar way about a person who is basically extremely kind despite not seeming friendly or sympathetic:

She plays the part of the tough cop with the heart of gold.

We use the combining form ‘-hearted’ in a number of phrases meaning ‘kind and compassionate’, for example big-hearted, good-hearted, kind-hearted, soft-hearted and tender-hearted:

I wanted to raise children to be kind-hearted.

She’s a good-hearted soul.

Someone who is not kind and has no compassion for others is cold-hearted. You can emphasize how little kindness and compassion they have by saying they have a heart of stone:

She was portrayed by the media as a cold-hearted killer.

You’d have to have a heart of stone not to be moved by these scenes.

If someone is extremely kind, you might say to them You’re all heart. (This expression is often used sarcastically when someone has said something very unkind:)

“I’m certainly not going to help her – I don’t even like her.” “You’re all heart, Emma!”

Finally for this post, if you harden your heart, you make yourself stop caring for and being kind to someone:

The next time he calls you up and asks for help, you’ll just have to harden your heart.

In Part 2 of this post, I’ll take a look at ‘heart’ idioms and phrases that relate to love and romance.

10 thoughts on “A heart of gold or a heart of stone? (‘Heart’ senses and phrases, Part 1)

  1. BRIKI

    I loved the expression ‘you’re all heart’ but one should keep in mind it is used in an ironic way.I am eager to read Part two of heart idioms..We find in French or even in Arabic the same meaning for example ‘a good heart’ in contrast with a wicked behaviour..The combined form ‘The big -hearted man’ is often used in French..but ‘heart of stone’ is used in my mother tongue to describe somebody ruthless,not compassionate…Thank you for sharing the linguistic passion with us ..

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