This idiom always makes me chuckle; whenever I see or hear the phrase ‘ears are burning’, I can’t help but think of Maurice Moss and his “hot ear” (for those of you who aren’t familiar with The IT Crowd, I urge you to watch it; it’s amazing). These two aren’t in any way related in terms of meaning, but its strong imagery did get me thinking about where ‘ears are burning’ came from.
What does ‘ears are burning’ mean?
You can use ‘ears are burning’ when talking about yourself (‘my ears are burning’), or when talking about someone else (‘her/his/your ears are burning’). It essentially means that the subject of the phrase is being talked about and discussed elsewhere. For example, Jane and Emma are talking animatedly about Bob, when Emma realises: “We’ve been talking about Bob for ages, I bet his ears are burning right now!”
We’ve established what ‘ears are burning’ means, and it certainly doesn’t entail someone’s ears being on fire. So where did it come from?
‘Ears are burning’ origins
According to the Oxford Dictionary of English Idioms, the expression was first recorded in the mid 1500s, and it was based on the superstition that people’s ears would have a tingling sensation when they were being talked about. Specifically, it was only the left ear which supposedly tingled. At this point, there is no further detail about where the ‘ears are burning’ superstition itself came from – but more on that later!
First of all, it’s interesting to note that like the previous idioms I have researched, the date of initial usage is inconsistent. Whilst the Oxford Dictionary of English Idioms claims that ‘ears are burning’ was first used in the mid 16th century, The Concise Thesaurus of Traditional English Metaphors states that Chaucer used it in his poem Troilus and Criseyde, written in 1374: “And we shal speke of thee som-what, I trowe, Whan thou art goon, to do thyne eres glowe!” Whilst the semantics of this expression are slightly different from what we use today, with “glowe” instead of “burn”, there’s no denying that this is a much earlier recording of ‘ears are burning’.
Earlier still, the Oxford Dictionary of Word Origins claims that the original idea behind ‘ears are burning’ came from ancient Rome. In his work Naturalis Historia, written in AD 77, Roman philosopher Pliny the Elder wrote: “It is acknowledged that the absent feel a presentiment of remarks about themselves by the ringing of their ears”. Pliny held the belief that a person’s left ear would burn if they were the “subject of evil intent”, whereas if their right ear burned then they were the subject of praise.
Digging a little deeper, it appears that the ancient Romans widely believed that sensations in particular areas of the body foretold a future or current event; a flickering right eye indicated an imminent visit from a friend, and a pricking in the left thumb suggested an evil occurrence was about to happen.
By tracing ‘ears are burning’ back through time, we can start to see the ideas and superstitions behind this idiom taking a bit more shape. It’s interesting that the meaning behind the phrase has remained the same since its original use; for a phrase or even a word to have a consistent meaning over centuries is itself quite remarkable, especially when language in general is so susceptible to change and evolution.
John Ayto – Oxford Dictionary of English Idioms – 1999
Julia Cresswel – Oxford Dictionary of Word Origins – 2002
Peter Richard Wilkinson – The Concise Thesaurus of Traditional English Metaphors – 2008