The ideograph of a red heart (displayed on Taipei 101) is widely known and recognized all around the world. Even young children learning their letters and shapes are being taught to associate the shape with the word “heart” and “love.” Valentine’s cards, balloons, and even cakes being sold sometimes come in this shape. There are three theories (none of which can be proven to be more valid than the others) of how the heart symbol came about: it was modeled after the human heart; the form and shape of the female body; and following the shape of the Silphium plant seed.
To the curious, the human heart is nowhere close to the shape of a real heart. If you’ve never seen an image of a real heart, this cartoon/drawing version might help:
It’s not quite the same, right? It doesn’t appear to be symmetric, nor does it taper to a sharp point at the bottom, even when looking at it from different angles.But then, there are some people who might argue that the human heart resembles the heart symbol we’ve all been accustomed to. Their interpretation of how the human heart appears to them could be different from how we look at it (in an objective manner, of course).
There are even people who associate the heart symbol with the female torso—the pattern made by the breasts to the genitals (some even say the buttocks). I honestly don’t know what to make of this, but it is just a theory anyway.
The third theory is related to the now-extinct plant seed of silphium, which was traded in the 7th century BC in Cyrene. It was originally used as a seasoning, but it was later used as a form of birth-control. The seedpod of the plant looked a lot like the heart symbol we are familiar with, and this shape was found in the Cyrene coins.
So how did it happen that when we see the ♥ or ♡ shape, we easily remember it to be a representation of a heart? I think we’ll never know, considering even the history of it cannot be traced. Nor would we know how that symbol became popular. I’m guessing the heart symbol only became widely popular after the 1800’s or 1900’s, because people wrote love letters using more of poetic words than graphic symbols.
I believe the usage of the heart symbol has simplified the act of expressing love, even though the symbol has decreased the necessity of articulating what a person really means. When using language, a person has to think of (or try to grasp) the word that best describes their exact feelings. With graphics, one can simply use the heart symbol, but the recipient cannot accurately gauge the extent of the sender’s feelings, just that they know the “love” exists. And I think that’s the complex thing about graphics or symbolism nowadays—it can be interpreted in so many ways. Nevertheless, what really matters is its capability to express ideas and emotions.