A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

How come valentine hearts don't look anything like real hearts?

February 14, 1986

Dear Cecil:

A question have I
To which I hope you reply.
'Tis a question that over the years
Has really not brought me to tears.
But since it is rapidly approaching, that is, Valentine's Day,
I thought I'd pose this question to you, if I may.
The question regards the shape of the heart, not the one in the bod,
But the two-lobed kind, as on any V-day card.
These stylized hearts bear no resemblance, as far as I can see,
To the real organ of our anatomy.
My guess as to where this shape did arise,
Has to do with a particular slant of one's eyes
When gazing upon certain portions of a woman's physique,
One sees many roundnesses to a female unique.
It's these curvaceous boundaries that I imagine did inspire
The symbolic heart's shape in someone's imagination to fire
But who was this person and when did it occur
To create a heart full of symmetric allure?
Thank you, Cecil, for putting up with my verse;
In prose my question would've been much more terse.
But would prose do justice to this heartfelt question of mine?
Hard to say; nonetheless, Cecil, will you be my valentine?

Cecil replies:

If you think I'm going to answer this in verse, Ross, you're crazy. I've been able to trace the heart symbol as far back as the 1400s, when it was first used as a suit designation on playing cards, and I'm sure it goes back a lot earlier than that. What inspired the guy who dreamed it up is hard to say, but a lot of people would agree that the biological heart wasn't the portion of the anatomy that was uppermost in his mind at the time. Here's what Desmond Morris, the zoologist who wrote The Naked Ape, has to say on the subject in Bodywatching (1985):

"The traditional heart symbol, with its deep cleft, looks very little like a real heart. Unconsciously, it seems to have been based more on the shape of the naked female buttocks, as seen by an amorous male approaching from behind. As a symbol of love, this makes much more sense for the human species, bearing in mind the unique and highly characteristic shape of this part of the anatomy, so much the focus of male sexual attention."

Before we get too carried away, though, I should point out that it's not true the heart symbol bears no resemblance at all to the genuine article. The twin lobes of the stylized version correspond roughly to the paired auricles and ventricles of the anatomical heart.

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