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  • Paul Anthony Jones


(n.) a burning sensation in the chest; (v.) to make someone jealous

A man clutching his chest as if suffering heartburn

If you have the HH guide to sea-changing etymologies, The Accidental Dictionary, on your bookcase, then you’ll partly know this one already. If you don’t—why not? And also, more importantly—as a verb, heartburn used to mean “to make jealous.”

So how does that work? Well, as we say this story is at least partly explained in The Accidental Dictionary, which looks at the histories of words whose meanings have changed dramatically since their first appearance in the language. And heartburn makes the list because hasn’t always referred to a burning sensation in the chest caused by acid from the stomach creeping up the gullet.

When it appeared in the language in the early Middle English period, heartburn was lust, or “burning” desire. The medical heartburn did not emerge until a century or so later in the mid 1400s, when it was first listed in a pharmaceutical textbook that advised drinking a draught of boiled wormwood to treat dyspepsia. Worked a treat, I’m sure.

Eventually that medicinal meaning replaced the earlier, more figurative meaning of heartburn to refer to an emotion “burning” in a person’s chest, and we’ve had the medical condition ever since. So to speak.

But the heart was for a long time—and at least figuratively, still is—considered the seat of all human emotion. Indeed we still talk of being broken-hearted; of suffering from heartache; of being of one heart; and of keeping meaningful things close to our hearts. The emotional association of our hearts to feelings still survives in the language—and, for a time at least, so too did the connection between those kinds of feelings and the word heartburn.

The Oxford English Dictionary has unearthed the word heartburn used as a verb in a mid sixteenth century account of the history of England. There, in an account of the life of the Roman Emperor Septimius Severus, we’re told that the emperor’s two young sons, Gala and Bassianus (who would go on to become Emperor Caracalla), refused to end a longstanding feud during their father’s reign, because of a “greate hatred which harteburned them.”

In other words, the two brothers were equally resentful and distrustful of one another. They were, in a word, heartburned—afflicted by bitter jealousy, enviousness, and resentment, destructive emotions that “burned” in their hearts, driving them apart. The OED ultimately defines the verb heartburn as “to make jealous.”

Alas, this verbal sense of the word heartburn hasn’t survived, and disappeared at the tail end of the 1600s. Nevertheless it’s yet another fascinating example of the continuous twisting and turning of the English language.

For one hundred more stories like this one, The Accidental Dictionary is out now

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