January 29, 2013

Words of the Month - Have a Heart

        In Western Culture the heart, as a million retail establishments are even now reminding us, is the seat and symbol of love.  But it's much more complicated than that.  I think it's quite amazing how many, and how varied, are the English words that derive from the heart.  To get you in the proper Valentine's mood, here are a few.

heart - In addition to referring to the organ, heart also means the center of something.  And when it appears in idioms it goes off in many directions.
     learn by heart - involves the memory
     heart to heart - involves emotional honesty
     have a heart - involves sympathy
        but when you don't have the heart to do something it's a double negative and means you weren't unkind enough to do it
     your heart isn't in it - involves enthusiasm
     lose heart and take heart - involve losing and gaining hope and bravery
        but lose your heart - involves falling in love
        and take something to your heart - involves affection and loyalty
        while taking something to heart - involves either serious consideration or serious grieving

hearty - sincere, vigorous, strong, abundant… the word that should simply mean "like a heart" is an emotional intensifier that can be applied to welcomes, meals, dislike, support, laughter, and people in good health.

        That's a lot of work for one organ that also has to get the blood circulated!  (By the way, our medical terms related to the heart, such as cardiac, come from Greek, by way of Latin and in some cases French.)  But the heart's work is far from done, because English also includes many more words that came to us from the same Indo-European root, but by way of other  languages.

core - the center, or heart (from French)

cordial - hearty or heartfelt (from Latin)
     also the medicine or drink that stimulates the heart

accord - when hearts are together (from French, from Latin)
     also concord; and discord - when hearts are apart

quarry - something hunted, from the practice of giving the hounds the entrails of the deer (including the heart) as their reward (from French)

creed - something you believe, i.e. keep in your heart (from Latin)
     also credulous and credible

miscreant - originally a heretic or unbeliever, i.e. one who doesn't have the right things in his heart (from French)

grant - to allow or consent, from a French word for "guarantee, promise," ultimately from the same Latin word for "believe, trust," which came from the root for heart (from French, from Latin)

record - originally to recite or learn by heart, before it meant to write down or keep in some other form (from French, from Latin)

courage - bravery, as in taking heart (from French, from Latin)
     also encourage and discourage, as in hearten and dishearten

dim sum - appetizer, apparently from the literal meaning "touch the heart" (from Cantonese)

        So in the next two weeks, while you're drowning in the trite pink and red hearts that are everywhere, take heart from the richness of symbolism as reflected in all these wonderful heart words!

[Picture: A Pair of Quails, rubber block print with watercolor by AEGN, 2010.]

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