The Meaning of Bleeding Heart: What It Is and How To Use It

Have you ever wondered what the idiom bleeding heart means? This guide will give you all of the info you need on the term bleeding heart, including its definition, usage, synonyms, and more!

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What is the definition of bleeding heart?

According to Merriam-Webster Unabridged English Dictionary, Collins Dictionary, and other English dictionary apps, the term bleeding heart refers to a person who shows excessive sympathy toward another’s misfortune or the underprivileged, sometimes without offering any solutions or doing anything practical to help. This is usually used as a political insult from conservatives toward liberal politicians. A Republican might call a Democrat a bleeding heart liberal as an insult during a debate or speech. The term bleeding heart can be used to refer to anyone who is overly sympathetic or soft. For example, someone might refer to themselves as a bleeding heart if they can’t help but take in every stray dog and cat they find on the streets.

According to Gardening Know How, a bleeding heart is also a type of plant, called a dicentra spectabilis or d. spectabilis, which is a part of the Fumariaceae family of plants. This common garden plant is a part of the family of plants of the genus dicentra. It is also known as a lady-in-the-bath or lyreflower. These heart flowers are in the shape of a pink heart, white heart, or red heart with a dangling betal beneath it, thus giving it the shape of a bleeding heart. These flowers are popular around Valentine’s Day, and can show someone’s unconditional love for another person. 

When being used in a sentence, one can usually assume that the term bleeding heart will refer to a person unless explicitly stated. People often use the term bleeding heart as an insult toward liberals, but a person who considers themself a Democrat may wear the term with pride.

What is the origin of the term bleeding heart?

According to Etymonline, the word bleeding heart has been used to describe many different types of flowering plants since the 1690s. In the sense of the term meaning someone who is excessively sympathetic, it has been use since 1951. It was popularized with reference to liberals, particularly Eleanor Roosevelt, in the 1930s by the newspaper columnist Westbrook Pegler, who lived from 1994 to 1969. People have been using the term bleeding to mean generous since the late 16th century. The symbol of a bleeding heart has been used since the late 14th century, likely as a reference to the bleeding heart of Jesus. 

Atlas Obscura states that prior to the 20th century, the term bleeding heart was mostly popular in the 19th century religious-tinged oratory in America. In the 1860s, it was seen frequently in different poems, essays, and political speeches as an expression of emotion and empathy. This phrase comes from the image of Jesus Christ’s bleeding heart, which is thought to symbolize his compassion and love for the people.

This phrase was so popular that London even has a place called the Bleeding Heart Yard, which is named after a sign that showed the sacred heart. By the 1930s, the term had fallen out of fashion and the political columnist Westbrook Pegler began using it as a political insult against liberals. He first used the term in a column to condemn liberals for focusing on a bill that provided penalties for lynchings. Pegler believed that it was not the government’s place to be involved in lynchings. He kept up the use of the phrase bleeding heart in his columns and, though the phrase did not immediately catch on, the New York Times began to use it in the 40s and 50s to refer to flowers and sports.

The phrase was revived in 1954 with respect to political contexts by another right-winger, Joe McCarthy, who criticized liberal Edward R. Murrow. From here, the phrase became known as a political insult directed toward liberals when satirical columnist Russell Baker put it on a published list of political insults. Reagan even used the term when he was elected governor of California. After this, the phrase became fully associated with democrats and liberals as both an insult and a badge of honor: conservatives think it is an insult, but liberals say they have bleeding hearts with pride.

What are synonyms for the term bleeding heart?

There are many different alternate terms for the phrase bleeding heart. Someone might choose to use a synonym, which is a word or phrase that has the same definition as another word or phrase, to expand their vocabulary, avoid repeating themselves, or in this case, to avoid association with a conservative party or political ideology, since the term bleeding heart when used as an insult is almost always directed toward liberals. The below list of synonyms for the term bleeding heart is provided by Thesaurus.

  • moaner
  • gutless wonder
  • weak soul
  • bleeding-heart liberal
  • wimp
  • grumbler
  • jellyfish
  • chicken
  • invertebrate
  • sympathizer
  • softy
  • faultfinder
  • liberal
  • sissy
  • bellyacher
  • whiner
  • weakling
  • hothouse plant
  • wuss
  • complainer
  • critic
  • sentimental fool
  • meek soul
  • sentimental person
  • griper

Overall, the term bleeding heart is used to refer to a person who is overly sympathetic or soft. It is often used as a n insult by conservatives against liberals, and was first used in reference to FDR. It can also be used as reference to a type of flower.

Sources:

  1. https://www.etymonline.com/word/bleeding%20heart
  2. https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/origin-bleeding-heart-liberal#:~:text=Before%20the%2020th%20century%2C%20the,oratory%20of%2019th%20century%20America.&text=The%20phrase%20comes%20from%20the,symbolizes%20his%20compassion%20and%20love.
  3. https://www.thesaurus.com/browse/bleeding%20heart
  4. https://www.merriam-webster.com/words-at-play/bleeding-heart-phrase-origin-meaning#:~:text=The%20phrase%20bleeding%20heart%20is,insult%20toward%20more%20liberal%20politicians.&text=Conservative%20journalist%20Westbrook%20Pegler%20is,with%20his%20criticisms%20of%20FDR.
  5. https://www.collinsdictionary.com/us/dictionary/english/bleeding-heart
  6. https://www.gardeningknowhow.com/ornamental/flowers/bleeding-heart/bleeding-heart-care.htm