Cutting off the nose to spite the face
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"Cutting off the nose to spite the face" is an expression to describe a needlessly self-destructive over-reaction to a problem: "Don't cut off your nose to spite your face" is a warning against acting out of pique, or against pursuing revenge 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 12th century. It may be associated with the numerous legends of pious women disfiguring themselves in order to protect their virginity. These cases include Saint Eusebia, Saint Ebba, Saint Oda of Hainault and Saint Margaret of Hungary.
One example of these cases is that of Saint Ebba (sometimes called Æbbe the Younger), 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.
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. Cognitive scientist Steven Pinker notes that the phrase may have originated from this practice, as at this time "cutting off someone's nose was the prototypical act of spite."
The expression has since become a blanket term for (often unwise) 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 of 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 Phrase Finder definition
- Jane Tibbetts Schulenburg, "At What Cost Virginity? Sanctity and the Heroics of Virginity", Forgetful of their sex: female sanctity and society, ca. 500-1100
- "St. Aebbe the Younger".
- Groebner, V. "Losing face, saving face: Noses and honor in the late medieval town." History Workshop Journal, 40, 1-15.
- Pinker, S. The better angels of our nature: Why violence has declined. Penguin Group, 2011. p. 68.