The phrase “cutting off the nose to spite the face” means that a person is behaving in a way that may be immediately rewarding but is ultimately destructive or has negative consequences. This phrase is typically used to caution someone against acting in a hasty manner or to keep him or her from doing something that may have long-term or unforeseen costs. It is similar to a number of other phrases that have been used in different languages and periods of history. Its origin is somewhat difficult to ascertain, though there are at least two different stories.
One of the most common uses of the phrase is as a warning, usually directed toward someone in the form of “Doing that would be like cutting off your nose to spite your face.” Though the wording of the phrase may be somewhat stiff, the meaning can be determined simply by looking at the phrase itself. A person who cuts off his nose not only takes vengeance against his face, he causes his body as a whole pain and suffering in the process.
This literal examination of the phrase reveals its meaning quite simply. The phrase describes an action that may lead to initial or short-term satisfaction, but which has long-term or inevitable consequences that should be considered. An example could include someone who is angry at his or her spouse and decides to burn down their house as a way of destroying that other person's possessions. Since the house belongs to both of them, the person would also be doing harm to his or her own possessions as well.
The origins of the phrase “cutting off the nose to spite the face” are somewhat uncertain and two different stories explain its genesis. One story, which seems fairly apocryphal, claims that a group of nuns, led by Saint Ebba, were in danger of attack by rampaging Vikings in the 9th century. To preserve their chastity, legend holds that Saint Ebba cut off her nose to become unappealing to the men, and instructed the other nuns at the monastery to do so as well. This story indicates that the self-mutilation was successful and that the Vikings did not violate the nuns, but that the invaders burned down the monastery as an expression of their disgust.
A somewhat more likely source for the phrase holds that it is of Latin origin, and made its way into French usage in the 12th century. It may have been said in the 17th century to King Henry IV, who was going to destroy Paris as a way to punish the Parisians who disapproved of his rule at the time. In response to this, it is said that one of the king’s courtiers told him that doing so would be like “cutting off the nose to spite the face,” and the king assented.