Phrase Origins: Don’t Cut Off Your Nose to Spite Your Own Face

The phrase “don’t cut off your nose to spite your own face,” always seemed odd to me. It would seem that most people would not want to cut off their noses. It would also seem that most people would not want to spite their faces. Why a person would cut off his or her own nose was always a mystery to me.

Meaning of the Phrase

Even though the phrase “don’t cut off your nose to spite your own face,” doesn’t seem to make much sense, the meaning does make sense. The phrase is an admonition not to do something that is meant to cause spite to others but only ends up causing spite to yourself.


There are no recorded records of this phrase until the 18 th century. In 1562, John Heywood wrote, “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.” He wrote this in A Dialogue Conteynyng Prouerbes and Epigrammes .

In 1796, Grose came close to the current form of the phrase. In C lassical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue , he wrote, “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.”

The Legend

There is a story that goes to the origin of this phrase. However, there is no evidence that the story is true, especially since the story takes place in the ninth century.

When the Mother Superior, Saint Ebba, had heard that vikings were attacking Scotland, she wanted to protect her virginity and the virginity of all of the nuns below her. In order to keep the vikings from raping the nuns, Saint Ebba cut off her nose and her upper lip and had all the nuns that were ranked below her do the same.

The vikings came and raided the nunnery. However, when they saw the nuns, they found them grotesque. The vikings, still bent on destruction in some way, burnt the nunnery to the ground.

The nuns, instead of perhaps having nuns that were now not virgins, and perhaps some that were pregnant, because of something they did not do were now left without a home.

It is said that the warning, “don’t cut off your nose to spite your own face,” comes from this legend as the nuns did cut off their noses to try to spite the vikings. However, it did not work, and the nuns were left without a home, thus causing themselves disadvantage.


Dave. (n.d.). Don’t cut off your nose to spite your face « My China Connection. My China Connection . Retrieved September 13, 2011, from

Martin, G. (n.d.). Cut off your nose to spite your face. The meanings and origins of sayings and phrases . Retrieved September 13, 2011, from

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