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What Does It Mean to Have a "Heart of Gold"?

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  • Written By: J.E. Holloway
  • Edited By: M. C. Hughes
  • Last Modified Date: 29 August 2016
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"Heart of gold" is an idiomatic English expression indicating that a person has a kind, generous and caring personality. Its meaning is rooted in traditional symbolism relating to the properties of gold. It is sometimes used to indicate a contrast between a person's appearance and behavior by suggesting that the individual has a good heart underneath an exterior that suggests otherwise.

The first recorded use of the phrase occurs in a play from 1553, "Ralph Roister Doister." This farce, regarded as the first comedy written in English, concerns the unsuccessful efforts of Ralph, a buffoon, to woo the beautiful Christian Custance. Among the other endearments Ralph bestows on her is "my heart of gold." In its first use, the term clearly describes a woman being praised for her excellent personality, as well as describing Ralph's love for her.

In medieval symbolism, gold represented the pinnacle of luxury. Due to its rarity and value, it was considered the noblest of all metals and thought to represent positive qualities of the human spirit such as generosity, justice and courage. The symbolic value of gold can be seen in other expressions such as "golden age," referring to a lost age of greatness, or "golden boy," signifying a promising youngster.

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Like gold, the heart has played an important role in symbolism throughout history. Medieval thinkers believed the heart to be the seat of emotion and passion. This symbolism permeates modern language in phrases such as "matters of the heart" or "to have a good heart."

By combining these two potent symbols, the phrase "heart of gold" suggests a person with a kind, generous and noble personality. The contrast with external appearance appears especially in phrases describing fictional characters. A particular type of leading man is commonly known as the "scoundrel with a heart of gold" while the "hooker with a heart of gold" is a well-worn literary trope.

The phrase has permeated literature, the arts and popular culture. It appears as the title of numerous albums and songs, notably a 1972 hit by Neil Young, which became the title of a documentary about him. It was also chosen as the name for a fictitious spaceship in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams. Two novels with this title were released in 2000 alone. A film festival in Queensland, Australia is known as the Heart of Gold International Short Film Festival.

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BigManCar
Post 13

@shell4life - Your story does a beautiful job of reminding us why people say not to judge a book by its cover.

For whatever reason, the guy you knew liked to dress like a biker. This made people see him a different way than they would have done otherwise. It's a shame, but in the end the loss is theirs. Sounds like this guy had plenty of friends and family who understood how special he was.

KLR650
Post 12

@wavy58 - I get what you're saying, but I think that your interpretation may be a little harsh.

What I mean is, nobody's saying "That guy has a heart of money". They say "heart of gold" because gold has a positive connotation in our culture, for better or for worse. It is the color of sunrise, and fall leaves, and, yes, gold, but all valuable things aren't evil.

I think this is one of those things you just have to take at face value in the spirit in which it was intended. If you get too deep into something you can find negative in almost anything.

parkthekarma
Post 11

@Mae82 - My wife had an aunt, who's passed away now, who definitely had a heart of gold. She was the most joyful, loving, kind person you'd ever meet.

She never did anything huge like feeding hundreds of hungry people or deworming orphans in the Congo, but she was just kind to everyone she met, and she tried to make everyone's life better if she knew them.

shell4life
Post 10

A big biker guy with long hair and a beard worked at my dad’s shop for many years. He looked so tough and scary, but he was known for his heart of gold.

He threw his young daughter a birthday party every year, and he would dress up as whatever she wanted him to so that he could entertain the guests. One year, he even dressed as a ballerina! Seeing a stocky biker in a tutu was hilarious, and it was enough to erase any fears that young children might have about his appearance.

He joked around a lot and was good with children. He didn’t do drugs or drink. Many people shied away from him because of his appearance, but they had no idea they were missing out on a heart of gold.

orangey03
Post 9

@Mae82 - Your grandmother sounds like a gem. She reminds me of my elderly neighbors who befriended me when I was young. I played with their granddaughter, and they treated me like one of the family.

Anytime my neighbor made pies or cakes, she gave me some to take home. If she and her husband were having a cookout, I was always invited. They told me to come over anytime, and I had an open invitation to play on their land.

My own grandparents passed away when I was young, and I was grateful to have my neighbors to fill this void. They are two people with true hearts of gold, and even though they are pretty poor, they shared all they had with me.

Oceana
Post 8

@wavy58 - I get what you are saying. However, “gold” or money doesn’t always corrupt the heart. I know of a few wealthy people with both pockets of gold and hearts of gold that are quite generous.

A man I work with is pretty much a millionaire, but he plays it off. He is always helping his employees in need, even though they don’t ask for help.

One lady I work with lost her car because she couldn’t afford the payments, and he bought her a car. Another lady had cancer and couldn’t work for a month, so he paid her for the lost time and helped her out with her medical bills.

He is among the rare individuals with a heart geared toward giving rather than getting. The difference between him and the empty-hearted greedy people you refer to is that he doesn’t love money.

wavy58
Post 7

This phrase is strange to me. Gold is associated with money, which usually brings about greed, competition, and scandal. Money brings out the worst in people.

The Bible refers to the love of money as “the root of all evil.” I know that “a heart of gold” means a valuable, rare, precious heart, but I find it ironic that the heart, which is supposed to be filled with love, giving, and goodness, is compared to gold, which usually corrupts the heart and empties it of good things.

Does anyone else see the irony here? I think it would be more accurate to say “a heart of love” than “a heart of gold.”

SarahSon
Post 6

I have known several people who have hearts of gold, but have one friend who demonstrates this all the time.

She is they type of friend who will drop anything she is doing to help out somebody else. You never get the feeling that she is too busy or too tired to help you out if you need her.

Many times she will just sit and listen because she knows that is what you need the most. Even though she doesn't have a lot of money or isn't rich when it comes to material things, she has a heart that is worth more than anything money could buy.

myharley
Post 5

The people we meet who have a heart of gold are those that we remember most often and always think of fondly.

Having a heart of gold shows what true character a person has, no matter what their outward appearance is.

My husband is a big guy who can look a little bit intimidating if you see him and don't know who he is.

From his outward appearance he looks like he could be a pretty rough guy, but he has a heart of gold and would do anything for anybody.

Moldova
Post 4

@Suntan12 - I think that the sign of a truly successful person is not how much money you accumulated at your death, but that you left the world a better place.

People that have a heart of gold do this instinctively and they are life’s real treasures. My sister also has a heart of gold. She is a public interest attorney in New York City and she devotes her life defending poor people that have problems with their landlords.

She ensures that the living conditions improve for her clients and has even stopped many evictions from taking place. For her this experience is so rich because she really does get to make a positive difference in the community. A lot of people give lip service and claim that they want to change the world for the better, but few people make a career out of this.

suntan12
Post 3

I have to say that my mother had a heart of gold too. She was so generous and always gave money to charity even though she did not have much money herself. She always focused on other people and when she died it really was hard because my sisters and I missed her so much.

@Wander- I think that it is a gift when you find someone like this, and I am so glad that in my case it was my mother. My mother was also deeply religious which is where her sense of generosity originated.

She would always tell me to pray for people that offended me and told me that she hoped that they would see the error in their ways. She really believed in forgiveness and promoted this value throughout her life.

wander
Post 2

@Mae82 - I would have to say that my uncle has a real heart of gold. He is always helping out with charities and volunteering at different organizations. Also, whenever anyone in the family needs help you can always count on our uncle to be there. He's one of those people that will drop everything to help a person he loves.

I wish I could be more like my uncle but I just feel to caught up in my own affairs to be that kind and generous. I imagine it takes a ton of energy to really be that caring all the time.

Mae82
Post 1

My grandmother had a real heart of gold, as she was always willing to help me out with anything I needed. I remember when I was little that my grandmother was the best person to hangout with in my family because she was willing to play any game.

With the kids in the neighborhood my grandma would take them under her wing too and make sure that they had snacks.

At Christmas time my grandma always showed her generosity by giving everyone thoughtful gifts that really showed she had been listening.

Does anyone else know anyone that you feel had a real heart of gold?

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