Where does the expression, “Cut off your nose to spite your face” come from? Is it from the nineteenth or the twentieth century? I have a bet with my auntie. She said twentieth, I said nineteenth. We’re dying to know!
Dear On Tenterhooks,
This expression came from long before the nineteenth century, originating in the mid-fifteenth century when people didn’t know that the nose and the other parts of the face were attached. They believed that each could get on quite well without the others.
There was often conflict. Eyes and noses would often squabble. Ears never liked noses too much and mouths were often in disagreement with ears. Ears and eyes always had the upper hand (but that is a different story, of course) because they outnumbered the noses .
Then one day in January of the year… (I forget which year, but it will come back to me) they decided to set up a truce. They needed to get along because all that fighting was causing people to slow down and putting society in a spin. The cost of gruel was skyrocketing as a result of the constant bickering. So they formed an alliance. They decided to establish a territory which they would call “the face” and all the features were part of the face, and subordinate to it.
Now the face had all the power telling everyone else what to do. It became a tyrant in fact, trying to control everything. Even had a secret police force. But noses were always the most unruly citizens, always sneezing and blowing, and dropping off garbage where no one else wanted it. The face, of course, could not accept this, and so decided to put a stop to it.
One day as a punishment for some particularly nasty refuse-letting, the face got so angry that it cut off the nose. Then there was a revolution and they all said to the face, “Look in the mirror. What do we look like now to the world? Pretty damn bad, no?” And so the face had to agree that yes, it was ugly without its nose. And so the expression to cut off your nose to spite your face is to think you are doing something bad to someone else but really hurting yourself instead.