Grammar 101 with Michael Kwan

Since I started this Grammar 101 series of posts on this blog, I’ve covered a lot of homophones. These are words that sound the same (or similar), but are spelled differently and have different meanings. Figuring out which word to use can be particularly challenging when the word is used as part of an idiomatic phrase or saying. We’ve seen this with terms like “bated breath” and “free rein.” And today, we’re taking a look at another one: faint of heart… or is it feint of heart?

If someone is said to be faint of heart (not feint of heart), it means that he or she is easily disturbed or scared. In other words, this is a timid person who cannot handle too much intensity. This is oftentimes used in the context of violence, blood and gore. For example, in my review of Kick-Ass 2, I said that the movie is not for the faint of heart, because it is very crude and contains plenty of brutal violence.

Being “faint of heart” or “faint-hearted” could be used under other contexts as well, but it would have that general meaning of being cowardly, squeamish, easily frightened or easily disturbed by something unpleasant. In this way, a “faint-hearted” person would be less likely or less inclined to enter potentially scary or dangerous situations. He or she would be less adventurous and less bold to engage in something novel or exciting.

It’s likely that this term was derived from our previous understanding of the heart as being the seat of emotions. Someone could have a “faint” heart, insofar that it is weak or barely there (like a “faint” sound). It’s also possible that the “faint” part of the saying comes from the verb faint, meaning to suddenly lose consciousness and pass out. The individual who is faint of heart could literally faint at the sight of blood, for instance.

The term makes a lot less sense when used with feint, which describes a deceptive movement or attack, usually in the context of a fight. If you imagine a boxing match, one combatant could fake moving to the left so that he can land a punch to the right. The term “feint” is used quite often in the context of fencing too. A feint is meant to distract or deceiving, giving the fighter a moment of opportunity to strike.

So yes, the correct saying is “faint of heart” and not “feint of heart.” When you break down the meaning, it just makes more sense (which isn’t always the case with English grammar and word choice). Would you like to see another English idiom or saying explained in a future Grammar 101 post? Let me know your suggestions by posting a comment below.