Understanding the Idiom: "sick at heart" - Meaning, Origins, and Usage

Idiom language: English
Etymology: From Hamlet, Act I, Scene 1, by William Shakespeare:
Francisco: For this relief much thanks: 'tis bitter cold, / And I am sick at heart.

The idiom “sick at heart” is a common phrase used in English language to describe a feeling of deep sadness or disappointment. It is often associated with situations that cause emotional distress, such as losing someone dear, experiencing failure or betrayal, or facing unexpected challenges.

This idiom has been used for centuries and can be found in literature, poetry, and everyday conversations. Its meaning is universal and can be understood by people from different cultures and backgrounds.

Origins and Historical Context of the Idiom “sick at heart”

The idiom “sick at heart” is a common expression used to describe a feeling of deep sadness or despair. This phrase has been in use for centuries, and it has its roots in both literature and everyday language.

The Origins of the Idiom

The exact origins of the idiom “sick at heart” are unknown, but it can be traced back to ancient times. In Greek mythology, there is a story about King Midas who was granted a wish by Dionysus. He wished that everything he touched would turn to gold, but when his beloved daughter hugged him, she turned into a golden statue. The king was said to be sick at heart with grief over his loss.

In Shakespeare’s play Hamlet, the character Ophelia says: “I am sick at heart.” This line has become one of the most famous uses of the idiom in literature.

The Historical Context

The idiom “sick at heart” was commonly used during medieval times when people believed that emotions were linked to physical health. If someone experienced emotional distress or trauma, they were thought to be physically ill as well. This belief persisted through the Renaissance period and beyond.

During World War I and II, soldiers often used this expression to describe their feelings after witnessing horrific events on the battlefield. It became a way for them to express their emotional pain without having to go into detail about what they had seen or experienced.

Time Period Significance
Ancient Times “Sick at heart” can be traced back to Greek mythology
Medieval Times The belief that emotions were linked to physical health was prevalent, and the idiom was commonly used.
Renaissance Period The belief that emotions were linked to physical health persisted.
World War I and II Soldiers used the expression to describe their emotional pain after witnessing horrific events on the battlefield.

Usage and Variations of the Idiom “sick at heart”

The idiom “sick at heart” is a powerful expression that conveys a deep sense of sadness, disappointment or despair. It is often used to describe a feeling of profound emotional distress that can be caused by various situations such as loss, betrayal, failure or rejection.


Although the basic meaning of the idiom remains consistent across different contexts and variations, there are several ways in which it can be expressed:

Usage Examples

The following examples illustrate how the idiom “sick at heart” can be used in different contexts:

  • “After hearing about his friend’s tragic accident, John felt sick at heart.”
  • “When she found out her husband had been cheating on her for years, Mary was sickened by him and felt sick at heart.”
  • “After failing his final exam, Tom was sick with worry about his future.”

Synonyms, Antonyms, and Cultural Insights for the Idiom “sick at heart”


  • Heartbroken
  • Devastated
  • Grief-stricken
  • Miserable
  • Despondent
  • Depressed
  • Sad

These words all convey a similar meaning to “sick at heart.” They can be used interchangeably depending on the context and tone of the conversation.


  • Joyful
  • Euphoric
  • Happy-go-lucky
  • Cheerful
  • Buoyant
  • Lighthearted
  • Optimistic

While these words may not be exact opposites of “sick at heart,” they represent a contrasting emotion that can help emphasize the depth of one’s sadness.

Cultural Insights:

The idiom “sick at heart” is commonly used in literature and poetry to describe intense emotional pain. It is often associated with tragic events such as death or betrayal. In American culture, it is also used colloquially to express disappointment in less severe situations such as failing an exam or losing a game.

Practical Exercises for the Idiom “sick at heart”

Are you looking to improve your understanding of the idiom “sick at heart”? Here are some practical exercises that will help you master this expression and use it confidently in your conversations.

Exercise 1: Identify the Context

The first step to understanding any idiom is to identify its context. In this exercise, read a passage or listen to a conversation where someone uses the phrase “sick at heart”. Try to understand what emotions or situations might lead someone to feel sick at heart. Is it a feeling of disappointment, sadness, or grief? Once you have identified the context, try using the phrase in a sentence that reflects that same emotion or situation.

Exercise 2: Create Your Own Examples

The best way to become comfortable with an idiom is by practicing it yourself. In this exercise, create your own examples using “sick at heart”. Think about different scenarios where someone might feel sick at heart and come up with sentences that reflect those situations. For example:

  • I felt sick at heart when I heard about my friend’s accident.
  • The news of her father’s death left her feeling sick at heart.
  • The failure of his business venture made him sick at heart.

Note: Remember that idioms are often used figuratively rather than literally. So even if someone isn’t actually experiencing physical symptoms related to their hearts when they say they’re “sick at heart”, it means they’re feeling deeply upset or distressed about something.

Common Mistakes to Avoid When Using the Idiom “sick at heart”

When using idioms in everyday conversation, it is important to use them correctly. The idiom “sick at heart” is no exception. This phrase can be used to express a feeling of deep sadness or disappointment. However, there are common mistakes that people make when using this idiom.

One mistake is using the phrase too lightly or casually. “Sick at heart” should only be used when describing a significant emotional response to a situation or event. Using it in a casual manner can diminish its impact and meaning.

Another mistake is confusing “sick at heart” with other similar phrases such as “heartbroken” or “crushed.” While these phrases may convey similar emotions, they do not have the same exact meaning as “sick at heart.”

A third mistake is overusing the idiom in one’s speech or writing. Overuse can lead to redundancy and lack of impact. It’s important to use idioms sparingly and effectively.

Variation Meaning
Sick with sorrow A feeling of intense grief or mourning
Sick with worry A state of anxiety or concern about something important
Sickened by something/someone An extreme aversion to someone or something due to their actions or behavior.
Sickening feeling in one’s stomach/heart/mind etc. An overwhelming sensation that causes physical discomfort and emotional turmoil.
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