Ponderings from a Procrastinating Prognosticator


Posted by samatwitch on December 7, 2011

This is actually an academic paper that I wrote for a third-year English class when I went back to finish my degree a few years ago.  I got 90% on the paper and my professor said the missing 10% was because I had left out a step!  I didn’t include the bibliography/references.

“Words are flashlights upon our thoughts.”  So says Joseph T. Shipley in his introduction to The Origins of English Words.  If this is so, perhaps we can illuminate some of the thoughts of our ancestors by studying the history of our modern words and their meanings, past and present.  Take a word like heart, for instance.  We are aware of some of the associated words, which have “heart” as the root, and most people know the connection with the Greek word for heart, kard-ia, but there are other words which are not so recognizable as being related.  Some of these are from the Latin root cor, or cordis and are less easy to identify as being from the same family.

All of these words come from the Indo-European root *ker-dhe.  Latin and Greek kept the initial voiceless stop,│ k│, while Germanic languages moved the voiceless stop to a voiceless fricative, thus │ h│.  The IE aspirated voiceless stop ‘dh’ became a voiced stop│ d│ for all these languages, but Germanic went one step further, changing the voiced stop│ d│ to a voiceless stop│ t│.  These Germanic changes are part of what is known as Grimm’s Law.

The word heart itself has undergone numerous changes in spelling, not just from the Indo-European to Latin to West Germanic to English, but from Old English to Modern English.  From the eleventh to thirteenth century, the word was usually spelled heorte, as it appears in Lamb’s Homer in 1175: “we sulen habben ure heorte and habben godne ileafe to ure drighten.”  The spelling changed to herte sometime in the thirteenth century, appearing also as harte from the fourteenth century to the sixteenth.  The latter was probably a result of the early modern English sound change from ‘e + r + 1 consonant’ to a sound, and sometimes spelling, change to ‘a + r + 1 consonant’. From the fourteenth to seventeenth century, the word was also spelled without the final “e”, which was, by this time period, silent; but from the sixteenth century onwards, the word can be found in the form we use now, heart.  As late as the seventeenth century, however, the word appeared in Scotland spelled hairt.

Heart has many meanings today, including a reference to a “heart” shape or referring to the physical organ, but the most common uses of the word still seem to revolve around feeling and emotion.  The Oxford English Dictionary gives this as one of the archaic or even obsolete definitions:  “Considered as the centre of vital functions: the seat of life, the vital part or principle; hence in some phrases = life”.
Perhaps our modern generation would find that to be out-dated, but the standard definitions are very similar:
1.    As the seat of feeling, understanding and thought.
2.    The seat of one’s inmost thoughts and secret feelings; one’s inmost being, the depths of the soul; the soul; the spirit.
3.    The seat of emotions generally; the emotional nature, as distinguished from the intellectual nature placed in the head.
4.    More particularly, the seat of love or affection.
5.    The seat of courage; hence, courage, spirit.
6.    The source of ardour, enthusiasm or energy.
7.    The moral sense, conscience.
8.    The innermost or central part of anything; the centre, middle.
Oxford English Dictionary, 1989

This last definition is particularly interesting, as it seems to relate to our word core, meaning essentially the same thing – the centre, middle, or innermost part.  It is suggested in one etymological dictionary that it probably comes from the same Latin cor.  This seems to be substantiated by the fact that several other Indo-European languages have cognates with this Latin word, which indicate a connection between their words for “middle” and “heart”.  In some cases, the word is the same, while in others, the two words thus defined are very similar.

We may not equate the heart with life, but we certainly seem to imbue it with everything that makes life worth living; our emotions, spirits, even our souls.  Perhaps that is why we adopted the Greek cognate kard-  to describe the biological and medical object that is our physical heart.  Thus we have cardiology, “pertaining to the heart, anatomically, physiologically, or pathologically” (OED, 1989), and its family of derivatives, cardiac (arrest); electrocardiogram, etc.  Another definition of cardiac is “pertaining to or affected with disease of the heart” (OED, 1989).  Contrast this with the above definitions and notice the heart is always referred to in positive statements.

Certainly, some of the compound words we have made using heart are negative, such as heartache or heartbroken, but the meaning of the root remains the same.  That especially holds true in the case of words such as hearty or heartily.  Both these words denote strength and kindly feelings in large doses.  The exception to this is dishearten, which includes the Latin prefix dis-, meaning negation, separation, apart or away from.  Whereas hearty and heartily are ways of expressing what is in one’s heart, dishearten denotes something that is done to one, depriving of “heart”, making despondent, as illustrated by this quote from Shakespeare’s Henry V: “No man should possesse him with any appearance of feare, lest hee, by shewing it, should dishearten his Army”.

Although we use the Germanic root, heart, for countless compound words or phrases to explain our feelings, and the Greek root for the biological descriptions, we use the Latin cognate, cor, as the basis for many other words which describe both feelings and manner, as well as the state between two or more people or things.

Our word cordate, meaning “heart-shaped”, comes from the Latin word cordātus, meaning wise or prudent.  A word that is in much more common use, however, is cordial, meaning “of or belonging to the heart; of the heart as the seat of feeling, affection, etc.; warm and friendly in manner” (OED, 1989).  This word is often used as a synonym for hearty, and comes from cordate plus the suffix -ial.  Like heartily, cordially can also be used in a negative sense, thus “I dislike him cordially (or heartily)” meaning with strong emotion.  The word cordial, used as a noun, refers to a sweet beverage, often with some alcoholic content, but it is a beverage which “invigorates the heart and stimulates the circulation” (OED, 1989).
Another, less often used word, is misericordia, which sounds like it should denote negative feelings, but actually means to have compassion or mercy, coming from the Latin miser (wretched) and cor (heart).

Many of the words based on the Latin cor, like misericordia, actually come to us via the French, rather than directly from Latin.  Such a word is courage.  Coming over from central France in the 14th century with the second wave of French influence on the English language, the word was then more frequently spelled corage in both France and England.  Our most common modern meaning for courage is “That quality of mind which shows itself in facing danger without fear or shrinking; bravery, boldness, valour” (OED, 1989).  But when we look back further, we find a now-obsolete meaning which links the relationship to its Latin root: “The heart as the seat of feeling, thought, etc.; spirit, mind, disposition, nature” (OED, 1989).  Compare that to definition #2 above, and one can see that at some point in our past, the words heart and courage must have been almost interchangeable.  Now we seem to have separated these words into two different meanings but, looking at definition #5, we still see courage as coming from the heart.

In the fifteenth century, the French gave us two other words connected with courage, which we have brought into common usage.  These are encourage and discourage.  Again, though they came into English from France, both the root and the prefixes are from Latin.  En- means ‘at or near’ and therefore the literal meaning of the word is to bring courage to someone else;  “to inspire with courage, animate, inspirit” (OED, 1989).  We use it in a much looser sense today, bringing hope or even renewed energy to another.

Discourage, of course, means the opposite: “To deprive of courage, confidence or moral energy; to lessen the courage of; to dishearten, dispirit…” (OED, 1989).  It is interesting to note that, although heart and courage no longer are synonyms, dishearten and discourage still are.

To me, the most fascinating group of words to come into the English language from the Latin cor or cordis also came via the French, starting to appear in Middle English in the 13th century.  These words – accord, concord, discord, record, and chord – have more in common than their spelling and their common origins.

The first three words are easily seen to be related.  Indeed, accord and concord can be used as synonyms, although accord is in more common usage.  In Old French and early Modern English, accord was spelled with only one “c”, but by the fifteenth century the spelling became consistent with the Latin accordā-re.  The ac- prefix was the same as an ad- prefix, meaning “to”, giving rise to the literal meaning of accord as bringing heart to heart, thus reconciling oneself or others, or agreeing.  The Oxford English Dictionary gives several meanings, among them “reconciliation, agreement, harmony, concurrence of opinion, will or action, consent” (OED, 1989).  The definition for concord is very similar: “Agreement between persons; concurrence in feeling or opinion; harmony, accord” (OED, 1989).  The prefix con-, meaning with, thus leads to the literal meaning of ‘hearts agreeing’.  Concord gives rise to a further word, concordance, for which one meaning is “The fact of agreeing or being concordant; agreement or harmony” (OED, 1989).  It follows, then that discord is the lack of agreement or harmony, specifically between persons.

The verb record takes a bit more thought to see why it belongs with this family. The prefix re-, meaning back, added to cord, gives us ‘bringing back to mind or heart’, i.e. to remember, or to learn by heart.  Record as a noun, however, is an English word which the French have taken back as a loan word! (Klein, 1967).

There does not seem to be a clear consensus with regard to the etymology of the word chord.  Klein states that it is an abbreviation of accord, the difference in spelling a result of confusion with the word chord which means the ‘string of an instrument’.  Partridge, on the other hand, does not really offer an opinion about where it comes from.

However, the Oxford English Dictionary offers these two current meanings:
1.    A combination of two “according” or harmonious notes sounded together, a concord.
2.    A combination, concordant or discordant, of 3 or more simultaneous notes according to the rules of harmony; rarely of two notes only.
(OED, 1989)
From this definition, it is hard to believe the words are not related, since every word in the group is defined in some way by using the word ‘harmony’.

More evidence for this etymology can be found in the obsolete definitions of this group of words.  Accord once meant “to compose, sing or play (something) in harmony…”, and  record  “to sing of or about (something); to render in song”.  Musically, concord still can be defined as “[a] combination of notes which is in itself satisfactory to the ear, requiring no resolution or following chord”, while discord, as one would expect, means the opposite: “Disagreement or want of harmony between 2 or more musical notes sounded together; dissonance”.  And an obsolete meaning of chord was “Agreement of musical sounds” (OED, 1989).

In the late seventeenth century, William Cowper, in “The Task”, wrote “…Some chord in unison with what we hear Is touch’d within us, and the heart replies”.  Towards the middle of the eighteenth century, on the other side of the ocean, Edgar Allan Poe expressed similar thoughts: “There are chords in the hearts of the most reckless which can not be touched without emotion” (The Masque of the Red Death).

In the late 1800’s, Arthur Sullivan of Gilbert and Sullivan, in the anguish of dealing with his brother’s death, put music to words written by Adelaide Anne Procter.  The beautiful song which resulted, “The Lost Chord”, epitomizes music, both words and notes, which comes from the heart.  Proctor refers to the chord as “[seeming to be] the harmonious echo From our discordant life”, which “came from the soul of the organ, And enter’d into mine”.

Although the Oxford English Dictionary does not mention music directly with regards to heart, a definition which includes “the depths of the soul” seems to indicate a connection.  Where else would the world’s greatest music come from, if not the composer’s heart?




  1. saalon said

    I cannot believe you still have papers from school! I purged mine in process, horrified by them as I was. Then again, mine were neither as readable nor informative as this one, so you had better incentive to keep them around than I.

    (Though now I’m thinking about My Big Fat Greek Wedding, and the father tracing every word back to its Greek roots, and I’ll be making that joke all day, so my friends “thank” you in advance. 😉 )

  2. samatwitch said

    I’m a pack rat – I have notes from some of my classes when I went back to do my last two years – plus this was on my work computer since I didn’t have one of my own at the time.

    I’m glad I have provided you with some enjoyment for the day. 😉

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