(From A Terrible Kindness by Jo Browning Wroe, Part I, Aberfan, chapter 4)

  • (In the vestry of the chapel where there are some facilities for the embalmers)

In the chapel gloom, William can just make out cocooned shapes; on the pews, upstairs and downstairs. . .William glances round at the blanketed bundles, guessing there must be over fifty. 'How many more to be rescued?' 'Don't know exactly' - Jimmy walks through the vestry and willam follows - 'but there were a hundred and sixteen children missing overall, plus adults.' A paraffin lamp casts a dim glow round the room with peeling white paint. There are two doors supported by trestles. William's heart jumps at the sight of such small bodies lying on them. During training he'd looked after one child; a ten-year-old boy hit by a car. At the time, he thought he'd take it in his stride. . .

I have an issue with the words William's heart jumps. What do you take jump to mean in this context? I think jump could be understood as wince there. William's heart winces at the sight of such small bodies. Do you agree? Maybe it's an idiom?

  • 1
    Are we going to be asked to go through the whole book, as it were? No, heart+ jump is very common in English. And guess what? It's right there in MW: b : to move suddenly or involuntarily : START. His heart could have started, in fact. Other defs. there probably are germane to this also. For matters of the heart, there are tons of metaphors in English. race, start, stop, miss a beat, sang, etc. etc.
    – Lambie
    Apr 13 at 19:09
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    @Lambie amongst those only 'sang' is a metaphor. The heart can literally skip a beat, race, stop or even pound. But the OP's 'jump' is a metaphor. It's what it feels like. Apr 13 at 19:22
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    @WeatherVane I think they are all metaphors except beat, which is the general verb for what heart does in everyday conversation and medicine. That's why we have heartbeat as a noun.
    – Lambie
    Apr 13 at 19:25
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    It's a metaphor, his heart jumped/skipped [a beat] - his heartbeat became irregular, he had palpitations, his heart faltered for a second due, doubtless due to the shock.
    – Billy Kerr
    Apr 13 at 19:27
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    The heart does does actually skip a beat, palpitate, falter or race. They are not metaphors, but descriptions of what the heart actually does. You don't imagine that your heart does those things. Apr 13 at 19:29

2 Answers 2


This Ngram shows that, apart from a spike in the 1860s, the frequency of [his/her/my] heart winced has suddenly increased. (That spike seems to result from two much-published works, one of which is a poem by Browning in which 'heart' comes at the end of one line and 'winced' at the beginning of the next.)

I think of wincing as tensing the muscles to draw away from some real or metaphorical source of pain. When the heart jumps, it gives an extra-strong beat in response to shock or emotional distress. I find nothing wrong with the expression in the given context.


In the phrase "William's heart jumps at the sight of such small bodies", "heart jumps" is used to describe the feeling of sudden shock.

The "heart jumps" wording is sometimes used to describe shock, being startled or surprised, or sudden panic, since those responses can produce a sharp feeling in your chest or gut. That feeling can also sometimes be described in writing as a 'start' or 'sudden drop'.

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