As anyone who has ever read a book, watched television, or spoken to two other people knows, the world is pretty evenly divided between people who are compassionate and understanding and those who really don’t want to hear it. A quick glance back through the mists of time may not identify exactly when people began using the human heart as a metaphor for love or kindness, but there’s no question that, in every language, it’s a central image for exactly that. People who look cross-eyed at anyone who begs for forgiveness or understanding are often told, “Have a heart!”
Here’s one idiom that makes perfect sense. Someone who cares for nothing but money and power is often described as heartless, an idiom that has become so commonly used no one stops to consider it is really a compound word and a metaphor in itself. At the same time, perhaps this heartless individual suffered a loss or pain so profound that it caused him or her to harden or steel his or her heart against future pain. After all, a heart that can’t be pierced is a heart that can’t be broken.
There can be a fine line between an individual who is, at heart, so cold that blood doesn’t seem to run in his or her veins and one who is simply doing what must be done. A group of employees who are given the pink slip might regard the boss who handed them out as unfeeling. In actuality, it’s possible the boss had no heart for letting everyone go and was forced to do so by his or her own superior. Such a boss would no doubt regret it from the bottom of his or her heart.
The entreaty to have a heart isn’t always leveled at malicious bosses or coldhearted lovers. Many idioms, especially common ones, have two levels of use. The first is what the idiom was originally intended to mean. At some point, however, it’s only natural that a wag will spin the idiom into a bit of a joke.
This is one such expression and is as often used playfully or mockingly as not. A boyfriend who knows his beloved won’t give him more than a single kiss might plead with her to have a heart. A soccer fan might moan, “Have a heart,” when a call is made that means doom to the team. A high school teacher might ask a popular but rude student who persists in tormenting less popular ones to have a heart.