Ears are Burning

I stumbled across my chosen word story for e by chance in a conversation with some international friends last weekend. After talking about an absent friend, the Estonian said, ‘He must be coughing now’. Then the Bangladeshi added, ‘Yes, he must be sneezing’. I was puzzled. Why should our absent friend be coughing or sneezing? As far as I was aware, he wasn’t ill. And then the penny dropped. What they had both done, and understood each other perfectly when doing it, was to adapt the phrase of their own culture to the international, English conversation, to suggest that somewhere the friend must have felt that we were talking about him. The British equivalent is: his ears must be burning.

The idea that someone’s ears are burning goes back to the Romans and is first attested in 77AD, in Pliny’s ‘Natural History’. During ancient times, signs like sensations in the ears were considered significant to augurs, Roman officials who interpreted omens for guidance in public affairs.

According to Pliny, ‘It is acknowledged that the absent feel a presentiment of remarks about themselves by the ringing of their ears’.

He goes on to say that a sensation in the right ear means the talk is positive while if the left ear burns, the subject is of evil intent.

This idea has thrived over the years and the expression can be found in many works of English literature, from Chaucer to Dickens.

Unfortunately, expressions surrounding other bodily sensations didn’t stand the test of time. Otherwise we might have been talking about flickering right eyes when friends are expected to visit or pricking in the left thumb when something bad is about to happen.

From my dabbles on Google, I’ve found that the idea that you sneeze when someone talks about you is found in Japan, Vietnam and Greece and you cough in Afghanistan. Do you have anything similar in your country?


5 thoughts on “Ears are Burning

  1. Hi – i’m a fellow A to Zer visiting some more blogs. I read all your posts, and enjoy them very much. I find everything about words fascinating. I visited Blarney Castle years ago, and let me tell you kissing that stone is no easy feat. You have to lie on your back and scootch way doen the side of the castle while someone holds your legs!! See you Monday for more fun.

  2. Hi, I think you meant left ear sensations auger evil intent as more broadly the left or ‘sinister’ side is often culturally associated with sinister or evil as opposed to the positive association of the right (or righteous) side being ‘dexterous’. Compare right hand man, eating with the right ‘clean’ hand, and left-handedness and left hand (morganatic) marriage. Otherwise I enjoyed your post.

    • Well spotted! It’s funny the mistakes you can’t see in your own writing. I think the associations we have (and our language has) about left and right is really interesting, and you’ve mentioned some great examples of it. Thanks for the comment.

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