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What Does it Mean to be "All Ears"?

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  • Written By: Lainie Petersen
  • Edited By: Melissa Wiley
  • Last Modified Date: 22 July 2014
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When a person explains that she is "all ears," she is using an idiom that indicates that she is willing to pay attention to what someone else is saying. The speaker is also typically indicating that she is open to actively considering the other person's words. In some cases, the expression of "all ears" simply indicates that the listener has the time and interest to listen to another, though it may also indicate an over-eagerness to listen to unsavory news or information. It may also be a plea for information from someone who is faced with a difficult challenge.

While the expression "I am all ears" may initially conjure up the image of a body that is suddenly overwhelmed by very large ears, in its most literal sense, people use the term to convey a desire to hear. The desire or interest is strong enough that the speaker essentially notes that, for the time being, he is willing to channel his attention into his auditory capacity. It should be noted, however, that the term is sometimes used by individuals in writing as well. Even though people do not actually hear the written word, the meaning of the idiom remains the same. A recipient of written communication is willing to pay attention to whatever the writer wishes to communicate.

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The context in which "I'm all ears" is used often contributes to its tone or meaning. In some incidences, it is kindly meant, intended to convey to someone in distress that the listener is happy to pay her attention so that she can express her concerns. In other cases, it may reflect a morbid or less wholesome curiosity about gossip. Finally, it can be an expression of frustration by the listener, who has encountered a difficult situation or problem for which he has not found a solution. As such, he is very open and interested in listening to someone who may be able to help him achieve a resolution.

In United States, "I'm all ears" got significant media attention when it was used by 1992 presidential election candidate H. Ross Perot. During a debate, Mr. Perot used the phrase in response to a comment made by one of his opponents. Mr. Perot had very large ears and, as he wore his hair very short, they were certainly a prominent feature. After he used the phrase, the audience became very amused, and for a few days the media made numerous comments about Mr. Perot's fortunate and apt choice of words.

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ZipLine
Post 3

@burcinc-- Despite having majored in English in college, I honestly have no idea where this idiom originated from. I don't think we know the origin.

I do know that this idiom is used in many different languages though. It's definitely used in French and Spanish and probably several other European and East European languages. It's probably been in use for a very long time and that's why the origin couldn't be traced back.

It's probably also one of the few idioms that has not experienced any change in meaning over the years.

burcinc
Post 2

How far back does "being all ears" date? Do we know anything about how it came about or who thought about it first?

My personal conviction is that this idiom came about because people don't always listen to each other. This is something I complain about a lot, especially with my mom. She is always thinking about something and when I talk to her, I usually receive no response. She pays no attention to me, it's as if what I say goes through one ear and comes out the next.

It's only when I bring it to her attention and say "you're not listening!" that she will actually start listening. Sometimes I get very upset and she will say "okay, sorry, I'm all ears, what's up?"

If she listened to me in the first place, she wouldn't have to be "all ears" would she?!

ddljohn
Post 1

It's so interesting how the same idiom can take on additional meanings depending on the situation and the way it is used.

For example, the way that Ross Perot used it is very interesting. It sounds like he was challenging his opponent after making a wise comment. If someone said "I'm all ears" to me in that kind of situation, I think I would feel challenged and nervous because I might not live up to what is expected of me.

On the other hand, if I saw my friend sitting all alone and quiet, I would go up to her and say "I'm all ears." But in this context, I'm not challenging her, but rather I want to know why she's upset and console her if I can.

It's the same phrase, but has such different connotations!

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