Cross My Heart And Hope To Die Meaning, Cross My Heart (And Hope To Die)

The origin of a phrase can color your audience’s perception of its use. Beware the potential pitfalls behind these common idiomatic expressions.

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By Laura Hale BrockwayAug. 15, 2018

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History is about more than just dates and places—it’s storytelling at its finest.

While visiting Boston and the city’s historic sites this summer, I was captivated by the stories and storytellers I met there. Tied closely to the history of Plymouth Rock, the Freedom Trail, and the Boston Tea Party is the language used to tell those stories. As it turns out, the language has a history of its own.

Many of our everyday idioms and expressions have dark origins that date back to colonial times. Consider the history of these terms the next time you use them.

1. “Riot act”

Have you ever been in so much trouble that someone “read you the riot act”?

In 18th-century England, the Riot Act was a law used to control unruly crowds. If a magistrate determined that a group of 12 or more people formed a “riotous and tumultuous assembly,” the magistrate would read them the Riot Act. If the group did not disperse within an hour of the reading, they could be arrested.

(Source: The Phrase Finder)

2. “Raise your right hand”

Ever wonder why witnesses are asked to raise their right hands before they testify? This practice dates back to 17th-century England when criminals were often branded on the inside of their right hands to permanently mark the crimes they had committed. “T” was for theft. “M” for murder. “F” for felon.

By raising their right hand if they appeared in court again, the judge and jury would know what crimes the witnesses had previously committed.

(Source: Proceedings of the Old Bailey)

3. “Cross my heart, hope to die, stick a needle in my eye”

Though no one is certain exactly where this expression came from, many believe it originated from eras of plague and contagion. Centuries ago, infectious diseases often swept through communities quickly, sickening and killing people en masse.

To contain and treat the disease, those who died of infection were often buried in mass graves or were buried quickly after death. This sometimes led to an unconscious or comatose patient being mistakenly pronounced dead and buried. To avoid this, caregivers were said to stick a needle in the eye of the patient to ensure his or her death.

To say “cross my heart, hope to die, stick a needle in my eye” was to seek assurance that you would not be buried alive.

4. Saved by the bell.

Another way to avoid being buried alive was to attach a bell to the outside of your coffin that could be rung from inside the coffin. If you woke up while interred, you simply had to pull the rope to be “saved by the bell.”

Several designs for these “safety coffins” were patented in the U.S. in the 19th century. However, there are no credible references of anyone using these coffins or being saved by them.

The more likely origin of the idiom comes from boxing. A boxer who is down for a count of 10 seconds can be saved from defeat if the bell rings and marks the end of a round before the 10-second countdown is over.

(Source: The Phrase Finder)

How about it PR Daily readers? Do you have any idioms to share?

Laura Hale Brockway is an Austin-based writer and editor, and a regular contributor to PR Daily. Read more of her posts at impertinentremarks.com.

(Image via)

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Anonymous says: October 31, 2020 at 2:23 am

There’s no riot without the need to draw attention to the police. No one chooses to say hope to die as a call to not be buried alive. Third, you can’t brand letters on your hand that will feed you & others, no one wants to be hurt for you to label them as something most who are guilty commit more crimes to blame the innocent. Lastly, a bell never saved a life, especially when most are tone deaf to the dials of resurrection.

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David says: November 26, 2020 at 11:21 pm

Didnt they used to hang murderers or even horse thieves? It’s hard to imagine that they’d brand people

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Nolan says: April 6, 2021 at 6:43 pm

I grew up hearing this phrase often. However, first time I heard “no crosses count?!” was in my 20’s from a Jewish girl. It was interesting, but I did not want to repeat that, as I am a Catholic… crosses do indeed count for us lol. I wonder if there is some linguistic history there. Maybe non-Christians did not want to say cross my heart to swear, so they started saying no crosses count? I would love to learn more about this.

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Jodi Junkins Shadle says: July 12, 2021 at 2:17 pm

They did indeed brand people convicted of certain crimes. In addition to those noted in the article, they used P for pirate.In Pirates of the Caribbean, the Admiral turns Jack Sparrow’s hand over and there’s a P branded on his wrist. The Admiral immediately knows he’s been convicted of piracy previously.

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