The phrase ‘your ears must be burning’ tells someone you were talking about them when they were not around. But where did the phrase come from?
It appears to goes back to Roman times. In Naturalis Historia, the 37-volume encyclopedia of fact, myth, and speculation, Pliny writes:
Those absent are warned by a ringing of the ears when they are being talked about.(AD 77, volume 28, chapter 5)
According to ancient belief, unexpected bodily twitches or sensations were signs and warnings, dependent on the left or right side of the body. The Romans believed that, if the right ear was burning, people were giving the person praise. If the left ear was burning, it meant that people were criticizing the person.
It wasn’t limited to ears. A flickering right eye, for instance, indicated you would get good news, a friend will visit, or something longed for will soon be seen. Pricking one’s left thumb warned of an evil event.
The absence of the use of right or left in the modern version of the phrase means you can’t tell whether the person is being spoken about positively or negatively. This lack of clarity could be confusing. After all, ‘burning’ doesn’t seem like a positive characteristic and burning ears can be a painful medical condition.
Another example that words matter.
A way to make the phrase clearer without using the left/right designation might be to use the alternative ‘your ears must be glowing.’ This more uplifting version dates back to a Middle English poem written by Chaucer in the 1380s:
And we shal speek of the somwhat, I trowe, / Whan thow art gon, to don thyn eris glowe (“And when thou art gone, I trust, we shall speak of thee somewhat to make thine ears glow”)
To my ears, glowing is more appropriate when referring to positive feedback.
Does it really matter if you use glowing or burning?
As I’ve frequently written about, we casually use jargon and idioms, assuming others know what we mean. Unfortunately, nuances are often lost and others have to work harder to understand us. Poor communication is the source of misunderstandings and wasted time.
It’s a burning issue. Encourage others to communicate more clearly. The results will be glowing.