A Matter of the "Heart"
Bill Long 11/16/06
Heartache, Heartbreak, Heartburn, Heartfelt
When did the "heart," rather than another part of the anatomy (such as the "reins," the "mind," the "soul") become the center of the feeling or innermost self in the English language? I don't precisely know, but the history of these words indicates that heart began to be combined with other words such as "ache," "break," and "burn" sometime in the 16th century, while "heartfelt" isn't attested until Pope's Essay on Man in the 18th. This essay shows not only the evolution of these terms but how one of them, heartburn, originally was associated with jealousy before becoming almost completely taken over by the medical profession.
Heartburn(ing) and Heartbroken
Multiple attestations of heartburn to mean "grudge" or "jealousy or discontent rankling in the heart" appear in the 16th century before the 1591 appearance of "heartburning" meaning "sharpnes" or "sowernes of stomack." As early as 1513 we have "A long continued grudge and hearte brennygne betwene the Quenes kinred and the kinges blood." In 1540 we have the appearance of the verb form: "Not being able to reconcile them..for the great hatred which harte-burned (i.e., rendered them jealous or grudging) them." Shakespeare is a third author using the word in in a non-medical sense before 1591, though here "heart-burning" is something that either kindles (more likely) or distresses/consumes (less likely) the heart. In LLL (around 1590) he says: "Thine in all complements of devoted and heart-burning heat of duty." Spenser, in FQ (1590), has "Disloyall Treason, and hart-burning Hate."
In the late 16th and early 17th centuries, heartburn is also attested in the verb form. Shakespeare has, in Much Ado: "How tartly that Gentleman lookes, I never can see him, but I am heart-burned an hour after..." From 1669: "I had been most abominably heart-burnt, if I had kept it in: this Love-passion."
The 1580s also saw the emergence of heart-break as something which distresses or breaks the heart. Heart-break, therefore, would either be synonymous with or one step more severe than heart-burn. From 1583: "Those griefes, cares, heart-breakes, and sorrowes, which are incident daily to maried folks." In the Countess of Pembroke's 1586 translation of Psalm 51 she has: "The sacrifice that God will hold respected, Is the heart-broken soule" (v. 17; OED mistakenly has it as Ps. 51:7). A modern translation of this verse has a "broken and contrite heart." Shakespeare knows this word, too, and so can say a decade later, in MWW, "Better a little chiding, then a great deal of heart-breake."
The Medical Use of Heartburn
Thus, the 1580s and 1590s saw the efflorescence of "heart" terminology to describe a deep emotion, usually negative or personally damaging, associated with the innermost part of the being. It might not be unexpected, then, that the medical use of the term heartburn also comes from this period. The 1591 definition is given above. In 1597, in Gerarde's General Historie of Plants, we have: "Small stonecrop..is good for the hart-burne." The OED defines this meaning of heartburn as "an uneasy burning sensation in the lower part of the chest....cardialgy." I love the latter word, which is not to be confused with cardiology. The former stresses the pain (Greek--algeo) to the heart, while the latter is a word relating to knowledge of the heart. By the early 18th century the word heart-burn is used in the present-day sense. Jonathan Swift can say: "Congreve's nasty white wine has given me the heart-burn."
Heartache Enters, along with Heartfelt
The OED tells us that heartache is first attested in Shakespeare to mean pain or anguish of mind. From Hamlet, early in the 17th century, we have the famous words from his soliloquy: "The heartache, and the thousand natural shocks/ That flesh is heir to." And it may be, to paraphrase the Bard, that heartache is heir to heartburn in the sense of a deep distress of the heart, for the latter word seems to diminish, especially as we get to the 19th century, while heartache gathers steam. Now, if you do a Google search on heartache and heartburn almost all the references to the former are to the distress felt by a lost love or disappointment, while the latter refers almost exclusively to a digestive problem.
Finally we reach heartfelt, not attested until 1734. Here is one heart-related word that we all want to have on our side, for it means "proceeding from the innermost self; thoroughly sincere, genuine, real." Indeed the first Google "hit" on "heartfelt" is the Heartfelt Foundation, which purports to serve people "in any form of need." A rather tall order but one which has chosen a good word for itself.
So much of life is spent with cultivating knowledge or a skill or profession that causes the heart to be neglected and cast to the side. Why not vow to make the rest of your life one in which the "heart" predominates? Heartaches there will be, and some heartburns, but maybe also we will have heartful action and heartfelt concerns. Learn to lead from the heart.
Copyright © 2004-2008 Wiliam R. Long