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What Does the Idiom 'Cut Off Your Nose To Spite Your Face' Mean?

What Does the Idiom 'Cut Off Your Nose To Spite Your Face' Mean?
The meaning of the term, simply stated, means to cause oneself self-harm while in the act of taking revenge. We will go a little deeper into the meaning of this term, understand its origin, and provide examples of the same.
Rujuta Borkar
Last Updated: Feb 8, 2018
Did You Know?
'Cut Off Your Nose To Spite Your Face' is alternately used with the term 'Cut off the nose to spite the face'. Both these mean the same.
The English language is rife with a profusion of phrases and idioms, making it a rich and interesting reading medium. Take for example the idiom 'Cut Off Your Nose To Spite Your Face'―while a cursory glance at this phrase will probably have given you an idea of what it means, the varied nuances of the meaning are revealed only after you have delved deeper into understanding it, in fact, it is only then that you know the meaning in all its entirety.

The simplest meaning of this idiom means to bring self-harm to oneself while in the act of causing harm to someone else, maybe as a form of revenge or out of pure spite and anger. In that way, it is essentially a self-destructive behavior that may be brought about as an overreaction. In the following Penlighten sections, we will understand the varied meanings associated with this phrase, as well as draw in on the origin of the same, and provide examples.
Meaning of the Term
The 'Cut off your nose to spite your face' idiom simply means that in trying to bring harm to someone, you're causing yourself harm too. Thus, even if you are successful in bringing pain, hurt, and destruction, as you had planned, it's a self-destructive behavior―you're doing it by bringing yourself harm as well―hence, it's not really a victory in the true sense, because, sometimes, the destruction might cause you more harm than the person that it was intended for.
Most often, the feelings that guide a person in wanting to cause someone else pain, stem out of anger, frustration, jealousy, or to take revenge for the hurt that the other person has caused them. There may be two distinct emotions that guide a person in wanting to cause the other person harm, either a deliberate action, or as a reaction. In either case, because the person is guided by his strong emotions, this idiom can be used as a warning to make him aware of the consequences or as a simple statement after the action has taken place.
Arguing couple
For example, your wife has misplaced an important document, and because of your anger, you want to smash the dining table. You mention this to a friend who warns you, "Don't smash the table! It will be like 'cutting off your nose to spite your face'! Talk it out with her instead." In this case, he is trying to make you aware that even though you think you will cause her harm, you will have to replace the dining table and thus, it will cause you equal disadvantage as well.

If it was used as a statement after the action had taken place, it would have been said like "Your wife misplaced an important document so you smashed the dining table? Isn't that a little like 'cutting off your nose to spite your face'? You will have to shell out big bucks to replace it now."

The fact that the emotions of 'tit for tat' or 'because you did this to me, I will do this to you' are at play, it most often prompts the action to be a rather exaggerated, overreaction to the incident, and thereby suggests that it was not really needed.
Origin of the Idiom
There are several versions which lay claim on the origin of this phrase. Let us highlight what these are in the following section.
Origin :
The earliest use of the term, it is said, can be traced back to the 12th century, where incidents of nuns cutting off their noses to protect their chastity might have been the origin of the same. Legends from that era speak about Saint Ebba, who in 867 AD, urged the nuns and pious women to cut off their noses and disfigure themselves so that they would seem unappealing to the viking pirates who had attacked the monastery. The saint went on to cut off her own nose and upper lip to demonstrate the plan and the others followed suit. It is said that the vikings were so disgusted by their appearance that they burned the entire building down.
Origin :
Another version finds its roots in the middle ages where it was a common practice to cut off the nose of another as an act of revenge or as punishment. The term may have literally originated from this action of cutting off someone's nose, as this was taken as the most common act of spite and anger.
Origin :
Yet another version claims that this expression could have originated in the year 1593 when King Henry IV of France was keen on sacrificing the city of Paris because its citizens refused to accept him as king. It was then that someone seems to have suggested to the king that destroying Paris would be like cutting off his nose to spite his own face. Though the term seems to have been founded in this incident, it wasn't until the mid 19th century when its use became common in English.
Origin :
In print, the term seems to have come into usage only in the 18th century. Certain proverbs which mean the same thing are seen to date to the Tudor era. In the Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1796, Grose's edition), the term featured in this form 'He cut off his nose to be revenged of his face'―which meant that in order to get revenge from his neighbor, he has physically injured himself.
Examples Explaining the Idiom
Example :
Don't stay at home to avoid Jim at the party. That's just like cutting off your nose to spite your face.

Meaning :
By avoiding going to the party, because of the fear that she will run into her ex boyfriend, not only is she missing out on a party, but sitting at home alone, she's only going to fester in negative emotions of self-pity, anger, and loathing.
Example :
She refused to answer her mid terms because of a fight with her father. Now if that is not cutting off your nose to spite your face, I don't know what is.

Meaning :
By not answering her mid terms she had wanted to teach her father a lesson, but in doing so she has failed the term and will have to repeat it, thus causing a disadvantage to herself.
Example :
A- Why didn't you sell the broken car off to Peter?! He was offering so much for it.
B- I despise him.
A- Isn't that a little like cutting off your nose to spite your face? You're going to get such a less amount on the market.

Meaning :
Because 'B' despises Peter, he has incurred a loss for himself. In trying to keep up his anger over Peter, he has let a great opportunity go to waste and now he will receive a much less amount than what he would have received from Peter. Thus causing a disadvantage to himself.
Though the term 'cut your nose to spite your face' is not used very liberally in the English language on a day-to-day basis, knowing its basic meaning should prompt many to use the same.