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The meaning and origin of the expression: Cut off your nose to spite your face

Cut off your nose to spite your face

What's the meaning of the phrase 'Cut off your nose to spite your face'?

To 'cut off your nose to spite your face' is to disadvantage yourself in order to do harm to an adversary.

For example, a restauranteur might refuse to serve bankers because he disapproves of money-lending. He would harm the bankers slightly by this by inconveniencing them, but harm himself also by the loss of business.

The expression is often used as proverbial advice "Don't cut off your nose to spite your face". That is "don't do something to harm your enemies and end up harming yourself".

What's the origin of the phrase 'Cut off your nose to spite your face'?

Don't cut off your nose to spite your face.The precise wording 'cut off your nose to spite your face' doesn't appear in print until the 18th century. Versions of proverbs that mean much the same thing date back to the Tudor era. John Heywood's A Dialogue conteinyng the nomber in effect of all the Prouerbes in the Englishe tongue, 1562 list this entry under "Of Spite":

If there be any, as I hope there be none,
That would lese [lose] both his eyes to lese his foe one,
Then fear I there be many, as the world go'th,
That would lese one eye to lese their foes both.

Grose's 1788 edition of the Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue came a little closer to the current form:

"He cut off his nose to be revenged of his face. Said of one who, to be revenged on his neighbour, has materially injured himself."

That 'revenged of his face' was the common form in the 18th century. It isn't until the mid 19th that we find the 'spite' version we use now. An early example of this is found in the London newspaper The Guardian, January 1861:

Therefore, if you are disposed to verify the old proverb, and "cut off your noses to spite your faces," I will not be so ungrateful as to assist.

See other 'Don't...' proverbs:

Don't cast your pearls before swine

Don't change horses in midstream

Don't count your chickens before they are hatched

Don't get mad, get even

Don't keep a dog and bark yourself

Don't let the bastards grind you down

Don't let the cat out of the bag

Don't look a gift horse in the mouth

Don't put the cart before the horse

Don't shut the stable door after the horse has bolted

Don't throw good money after bad

Don't throw the baby out with the bathwater

Don't try to teach your Grandma to suck eggs

Don't upset the apple-cart

See other phrases first recorded by Captain Francis Grose.

Gary Martin - the author of the website.

By Gary Martin

Gary Martin is a writer and researcher on the origins of phrases and the creator of the Phrase Finder website. Over the past 26 years more than 700 million of his pages have been downloaded by readers. He is one of the most popular and trusted sources of information on phrases and idioms.

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