don’t cut off your nose to spite your face

“Don’t cut off your nose to spite your face” describes a needlessly self-destructive over-reaction to a problem in a way that would damage oneself more than the object of one’s anger.

The phrase is known to have been used in the 1100s. It may be associated with the numerous legends of pious women disfiguring themselves in order to protect their virginity.

One example of these cases is that of Saint Ebba, the Mother Superior of the monastery of Coldingham Priory. In AD 867, Viking pirates from Zealand and Uppsala landed in Scotland. When news of the raid reached Saint Ebba, she gathered her nuns together and urged them to disfigure themselves, so that they might be unappealing to the Vikings. In this way, they hoped to protect their chastity. She demonstrated this by cutting off her nose and upper lip, and the nuns proceeded to do the same. The Viking raiders were so disgusted that they burned the entire building to the ground with the nuns inside.

So who is over-reacting here?

It was not uncommon in the Middle Ages for a person to cut off the nose of another for various reasons, including punishment from the state, or as an act of revenge.

The expression has since become a blanket term for self-destructive actions motivated purely by anger or desire for revenge. For example, if a man was angered by his wife, he might burn down their house to punish her; however, burning down her house would also mean burning down his, along with all their possessions.

In the 1796 edition of Grose’s Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, “He cut off his nose to be revenged of his face” is defined as “one who, to be revenged on his neighbor, has materially injured himself.” The word “face” is used here in the sense of “honor.”

The precise wording “don’t cut off your nose to spite your face” doesn’t appear in print until the 1700s. Proverbs that offer much the same advice date back to the Tudor era. An early example of this is found in the London newspaper, The Guardian, January 1861:

“Therefore, if you are disposed to verify the old proverb, and ‘cut off your noses to spite your faces,’ I will not be so ungrateful as to assist.”

Revenge is sweet but, as some say, it’s a dish best eaten cold. Let the emotions drain away and “cut off” your adversary’s nose, not your own.

  One thought on “don’t cut off your nose to spite your face

  1. how9473
    January 3, 2021 at 7:19 am

    September 2020 we had planned to stay at Beadnell, Northumberland, which is very close to St Ebba digs. A visit to the church nearby would have been in order too. I once found an old black and white illustration of Ebba with her nose cut off. I love this story, and also loved reading it here. Maybe we will get there this year?

    Liked by 1 person

    • January 3, 2021 at 10:36 am

      I very much hope you will get there this year!


  2. Leanne Taylor
    January 3, 2021 at 1:14 pm

    I hope that you will get there in 2021, too. I hope that all of us will get to fly off to wherever we would like this year! ( … Or ride. Or walk. 🙂

    Got caught up in “save face”. (Don’t recall where I read this:) —> A group of women were sitting in a 1700s sewing circle. One whispered to another that a third ought to move away from the fireplace and “save face”. The response was, “Oh, mind your own beeswax!” <– (paraphrased, of course:-) The author's explanation was that women and men of that era filled in the pock marks left by chickenpox, etc, with melted beeswax.
    A websesrch at that time yielded nothing of the sort on either phrase – –

    Thank you, Lea, for your tenacity, wonderful research skills – –
    And for another informative and entertaining article!
    With facts and sources.

    Liked by 1 person

    • January 3, 2021 at 2:55 pm

      That is a very interesting take on “mind your own beeswax.” It sounds to me like something dreamed up by an enterprising English student, but I could be wrong. Which means that I will have to go do my own research! Thanks for the inspiration!


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