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An exercise in etymological bodybuilding

To an etymologist the names of some organs and body parts pose almost insoluble problems. A quick look at some of them may be of interest to our readers. I think that in the past, I have discussed only the words brain and body (21 February 2007: brain; 14 October 2015: body). Both etymologies are hard, for the words are local: brain has a rather inconspicuous German cognate, and the same holds for body. I risked offering tentative suggestions, which were followed by useful, partly critical comments. As usual, I see no reason to repeat what I said in the past and would like to stress only one idea. Etymologists, when at a loss for a solution, often say that the inscrutable word could enter IndoEuropean or Germanic, or Romance from some unknown, unrecorded language (such languages are called substrates).

The human body: a great etymological conundrum. Image credit: physicalculture201908macf by Internet Archive Book Images. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Since the speakers of Indo-European colonized the territories once inhabited by the tribes whose languages are lost, there is no doubt that the new settlers borrowed some native words.  This is especially true of plant, animal, and place names, as well as of certain cultural artifacts, but, when we are told that a common word came from a foreign (unidentifiable!) source, we should be on our guard. Obscure words are plentiful. Perhaps we have no way of recovering their origin, for who said that modern historians can solve all the riddles of the past? I keep rubbing in this fact, because the etymology of eye, ear, head, and quite a few others is partly beyond recovery. Lament our ignorance, but beware of the facile resort to the substrate.

In our survey of kidneys, liver, lungs, and the rest, we first notice heart. This word is indeed Indo-European.  Greek had kardíā (cardiology and the rest are from it). Latin cor, cordis and the others in the related languages have preserved a variant of the same word. But a list of cognates, even ever so long, is not an etymology. We want to know how the heart got its name. The most natural approach to words is via the function of “things.” Did people millennia ago know the function of the brain, heart, and the rest? In my discussion of brain, I suggested that brain was akin to bran: people saw our “gray matter” (usually inside the broken skull of an enemy) but had no clue to what it was for. Likewise, watching one’s enemy bleed and discovering the role of blood in a living organism are entirely different things.

We associate the heart with all kinds of emotions. Hence Heart of Darkness, Heart Break House, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, The Tell-Tale Heart, and the rest (I have cited only the most famous titles that occurred to me).  It is rather unlikely that at the dawn of civilization, people spoke about a cruel man breaking a girl’s heart, about hearty meals, or heartfelt gratitude. Yet there have been attempts to connect the Indo-European word for “heart” with words for “trust.” Heart has been compared with some Sanskrit words of comparable meanings (mainly “trust”) and also with Latin credo “I believe.” More likely, this connection is due to what is called folk etymology, that is, a late association of historically different but similar-sounding words that seem to belong together. However, the heart must have been understood as the most vital part of the organism very long ago, so that the step from “the center of the body” to “the seat of feeling” was not very long.

The chiaroscuro of the heart is unpredictable.

In wanderings among the words for “heart,” especially promising are the Slavic cognates: Russian serdtse and others like it. Serd– corresponds to Latin cord– sound for sound. In this blog, I have often mentioned the so-called First Consonant Shift. For example, Latin pater is related to Engl. father, because (if for the moment we stay with the first consonant) Germanic f regularly corresponds to non-Germanic p. By the same token, Latin cent (pronounced as kent) is related to Engl. hund– in hundred, because, according to the First Consonant Shift, non-Germanic k is related to Germanic h. But that correspondence works only for the western Indo-European languages, while in the eastern group, the correspondence is k to s. The Russian for “hundred” is sto. Fortified by the above-given formula, we understand the logic of the triads cent ~ hund(red) ~ sto and cord- ~ heart ~ serd-tse. The vowels alternate by ablaut, another phenomenon that I mention with great regularity.

Unlike cord– and heart, serd-tse is rather transparent, because it is related to such words as sred-i “among” (stress on the second syllable) and seredina “middle” (stress on the third syllable). Assuming that Slavic provides the desired clue, heart will be, from the etymological point of view, an organ in the middle of the breast. However, even this result is not entirely flawless.  Such is the tortuous path to the etymology of a word with numerous indubitable cognates and a seemingly transparent meaning. It is no wonder that other cases are harder.

From heart to heart. Image credit: The Wizard of Oz by The Dress Up Place. CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr.

For comparison, I have chosen the least Indo-European word I could think of, namely, groin. The name of this part of our anatomy varies from language to language. Latin inguen (usually in the plural), from which the Romance languages have the name of the groin, probably (!) meant “gland.”  German Leiste seems to go back to the meaning “border” and has the English congener list “border,” which those of us who are not versed in Middle English but occasionally read chivalric romances will recognize only from the plural lists “an arena for tournaments.”  German Weiche, a synonym of Leiste, means “a soft place” (no connection with Weiche “switch between rails,” called “points” in British English). Even the Scandinavian languages do not have a common word for “groin”: Icelandic nári is “a narrow place.” Norwegian and Danish lyske possibly (!) has the same root as Engl. loose (Icelandic ljóski also exists). Swedish speakers fell victim to the already mentioned folk etymology and changed the word to ljumske, so that it looks like meaning “tepid.”

Occasional ties exist: one of the names may be the same in German and Dutch, another name is common to all the Scandinavian languages, or an English cognate may turn up, but, in principle, there is “infinite variety.” For completeness sake, I can mention Slavic pakh, a word of questionable origin; it has nothing to do with pakhat’ (stress on the second syllable) “to plow” or pakhnut’ “to smell.”

Few hearts are broken forever. Image credit: Broken Love Heart bandage by Adhesive bandage drawing nevit. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Why is it that heart has such venerable roots, while groin does not? Was the word for the groin slang or at least “a popular word” with ill-smelling connotations? Engl. groin goes back to Middle Engl. grynde; the loss of d has not been explained. Similar-sounding Old English words meaning “depression; dimple; snare” exist, but it is not clear whether they have anything to do with groin. The vowel in groin was long i (ī), and the expected modern form should have been grine. This “cockneyfied” pronunciation is not unique to groin: boil and joist also sound like “vulgar” forms. On the other hand, groin might have been influenced by loin, a noun of French origin. Don’t feel disheartened and gird up your loins for more riddles.

Featured Image: The lists: knights jousting. Image credit: Spectacular Knight by PublicDomainPictures. CC0 via Pixabay

Recent Comments

  1. Jevgēnijs Kaktiņš

    For ablaut lovers – Latvian sirds and serde (core, apple-core) as well as corresponding Lithuanian širdìs šerdìs express sligthly different aspect that of insideness. Interestingly, official Prussian borrowing into Latvian for body ķermenis (Latin crorpus) could also be related to ķirmis (borer) that gnawing till the heart of wood. Vidus (LT vidùs) is also inner, middle part, while wood related to mežs (forest LV) – medis. (LT tree).

  2. Constantinos Ragazas


    The etymology of “brain” likely goes back to the Greek “frena” (brain). As in “phrenology”. Just as “heart” derives from the Greek “karthia” (heart).

    Here is one for you, Anatoly! What is the etymology of “joy”? Or try “glad”, instead.

    Etymology “bodybuilding” of English words begins with a thorough knowledge of Greek!


  3. Jason Schwartz

    From Proto-Indo-European *ḱr̥d. Vedic hṛd is a perfect cognate formally and semantically.

  4. Yves Rehbein

    For PIE root and the semantic developmet to heart I recently noticed the root *ker (“to run”, with a long bar over the e). Obviously, in physical exercise the heart is noticably pounding. To this day wd say that something “runs” (same in ger. “es geht”, fr. “ca va”).

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