Q: I wonder if “Are your ears burning?” is an expression that you may want to parse.
A: The expression is derived from an old belief that one’s ears can somehow sense that one is being talked about, even if the talking is going on at a distance.
The ears supposedly respond to such gossip by burning or glowing or ringing or some other physical change.
The Oxford Dictionary of English Idioms (3d ed., 2009), edited by John Ayto, says “someone’s ears are burning” means “someone is subconsciously aware of being talked about, especially in their absence.”
But The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms (1997), written by Christine Ammer, defines “one’s ears are burning” as being troubled by overhearing an actual conversation:
“Be disconcerted by what one hears, especially when one is being talked about.”
As far as we can tell, the belief that one’s ears can sense something said about one in absentia first showed up in the writings of the first-century Roman philosopher Pliny the Elder.
In Naturalis Historia (also known as Historia Naturalis), Pliny’s 37-volume encyclopedia of fact, myth, and speculation, he writes:
Quin et absentes tinnitu aurium præsentire sermones de se receptum est (“Those absent are warned by a ringing of the ears when they are being talked about,” from volume 28, chapter 5).
The first example of the usage we’ve seen in English is from Troilus and Criseyde, a Middle English poem written by Chaucer in the 1380s:
“And we shal speek of the somwhat, I trowe, / Whan thow art gon, to don thyn eris glowe” (“And when thou art gone, I trust, we shall speak of thee somewhat to make thine ears glow”).
The earliest example we’ve come across that specifically mentions burning is from Of the Burning of the Eares, a 16th-century poem by James Yates:
“That I doe credite give unto the saying old: / Which is, when as the eares doe burne, some thing on thee is told” (from The Castell of Courtesie, a 1582 collection of Yates’s poetry).
The first example we’ve seen for the version of the expression you cite (“Are your ears burning?”) is from the July 6, 1892, issue of Our Church Paper, a Lutheran weekly in New Market, VA.
The paper reprinted a letter from Japan to children in the states. The letter, apparently written by the father of the children, suggests that their ears may be burning because he’s been thinking of them:
“Well, children, are your ears burning today? Whether they are or not, I have been thinking about you a great deal. For I have read over again the letters that came from childish pens away across the sea, in order that I might answer some of the questions you have asked me.”
There have been many related superstitions, such as that the ringing of the right ear signifies you’re being praised, while the ringing of the left indicates you’re being criticized. Enough said. We’re up to our ears.
Let’s end with an example from Shakespeare of an actual conversation that’s overheard. In Much Ado About Nothing, believed written in the late 1590s, Beatrice’s ears burn when she overhears Hero and Ursula speaking of her:
What fire is in mine ears? Can this be true?
Stand I condemned for pride and scorn so much?
Contempt, farewell! and maiden pride, adieu!
No glory lives behind the back of such.