On Valentine’s Day, hearts are everywhere. Candy hearts. Heart emoji. Every imaginable sort of heart-shaped chocolate, greeting card, decorative banner, bric-a-brac. Hearts even swell in our words – and not just the likes sweetheart or, depending on how feel about the holiday, heartsick. I grant you no quarry, you discordant, incredulous, myocardial miscreant! Yes, these words also have the word “heart” at their etymological heart.
Heart of “heart”
Historical linguists ultimately root the word heart, documented as heorte in Old English, in a hypothetical Proto-Indo-European base, *kerd-, meaning “heart.” A complex series of sound changes, described in Grimm’s Law, transformed the k sound into an h in Germanic languages. If you pay attention to the back of your mouth as you make a k and h, you may get a sense for how a k evolved into the seemingly unrelated h.
Follow your “heart”
But the k sound didn’t change in all Indo-European languages. In Greek, *kerd- became καρδία (kardia), which beats on in a host of scientific words. Like cardiac, an adjective for “heart,” and cardio, originally a combining form (e.g., cardiologist, cardiovascular). Many medical terms feature the Greek kardia: myocardium literally means “muscle-heart”’; pericardium, “around the heart”; and tachycardia, “swift heart.”
The Latin root for “heart” – cor, genitive cordis – also has a strong pulse in English. For the following derivations, it helps to remember that the ancients didn’t just associate the heart with the organ or feelings. It was also considered the seat of the soul and mind, linking it with intelligence and memory. English preserves some of these ideas, too, in expressions like “to learn by heart.”
As pumped into English via French, Latin’s cor positively bleeds in the cord of:
- Accord, joining ad- (to) and cor, “heart to heart,” hence its senses of “agreement”
- Concord, uniting con- (with) and cor, “hearts together,” hence its meanings of “harmony”
- Discord, just the opposite of concord, with dis– meaning “apart,” thus “strife”
- Record, featuring re- (again), has the sense of “to call back to heart.” In Middle English, record word originally meant “to learn by heart,” then “make a permanent mark (as in writing)” by the 1580s. It’s not until the late 1800s that we see the modern uses of record, as in audio and images.
English also takes Latin’s “heart” in:
- Cordial, frequently used for restorative (“heart-invigorating”) drinks and medicines in the 15th century in addition to “warm” or “heartfelt”
- Courage, naming the heart as the “seat of feeling” in the early 1300s before settling on “bravery” by the end of the century
- Quarry, originally the parts of a deer carcass fed to dogs in the 1300s, referring to any hunted animal by the 1500s. The proposed Latin root is *corata, “entrails.” (Historically, words for “heart” sometimes doubled for “stomach.”)
- Many trace core, as in apples, torsos, and matters, to Latin’s cor, but the etymology is disputed. Cores, the theory goes, are the “center” or “heart” of something.
Put some “heart” into it
The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots suggests the Proto-Indo-European *kerd– may have wedded another root, *dhe- (to place) yielding *kerd-dhe-, “to place trust,” which was apparently a religious term. The dictionary supposes this *kerd-dhe- could have generated the Latin verb crēdere, “to believe” or “trust,” literally “to place one’s heart.”
Crēdere no doubt warmed the cockles of English’s lexical heart, providing:
- Credit (a loan, after all, is about trust)
- Grant, via a variant of the Old French creanter (to assure, promise)
But should all this Valentine’s Day business just give you, well, heartburn, you might appreciate a different derivative of Latin’s crēdere: miscreant. Christians first used miscreant in the 1300s to decry a “pagan” “or “heathen.” It literally means a “misbeliever,” joining mis– (ill, wrong) with the French creire (to believe). But by the late 1500s, it could a “scoundrel,” now used humorously. So, if some spurns your valentines today, at least you’ll have quite the hearty insult.