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Word roots and routes: heart

© Image SourceNext in a series of posts exploring some of the ‘roots’ and ‘routes’ of English vocabulary.

Heart (Germanic) has relatives in words beginning with card– (from Greek) and cord– / cour– (from Latin/French).* The Greek root is used in medical terminology; cardiac arrest, for example, is a term used by medical professionals for what the general public call a heart attack.



Apart from its physiological function, the heart is traditionally regarded as the source of feelings and emotions, and this is reflected in numerous derived words and phrases, such as be in good heart, kind-hearted, have a heart of gold, have a heart of stone, heartless.

The adjective cordial is also based on the notion of warm, friendly feelings emanating from the heart, while the noun cordial was originally a medicine to stimulate the heart.

The idea of agreement, harmony, reconciliation, of two people sharing the same feeling about an issue, underlies accord (plus accordingly, according to, in accordance with, and the musical instrument called the accordion) and concord, while discord is a lack of such agreement.

To record was originally to learn by heart, before it became used for more tangible ways of storing information. The musical instrument known as the recorder was so called because of its use in practising and therefore remembering tunes.

Courage was at one time used as a name for various kinds of strong feeling, before its meaning became restricted to bravery. If you feel disheartened about a situation, you will probably appreciate any encouraging or heartening news.

The image of the heart as the innermost and most vital part of the body is extended to other domains in phrases such as ‘deep in the heart of the countryside’, ‘get to the heart of the matter’, ‘the heartland of the Industrial Revolution’ and so on.

It has often been assumed that core is also related to these cor– words; after all, the core of something is the most central, or most vital, or most important part: e.g. an apple core, the Earth’s core, the core business of a company, core competence, core beliefs, etc. It seems that this assumption is probably wrong, in fact, but the degree of semantic overlap between core and heart is, neverthless, remarkable. I like to think that Yeats had this in mind when he wrote, in his poem The Lake Isle of Innisfree:

I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements gray,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.

*The same alternation between h and c is evident in hundred/cent, hound/canine and horn/corn (corn as in unicorn, corner, cornucopia (horn of plenty), cor anglais (English horn) etc.)

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Jonathan Marks

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