Two heart-related etymologies turned up on the HH feed last week: the fact that heartache originally meant “heartburn”, and the fact that heartburn originally meant “lust”.
Proof that heartache was originally a medical rather than an emotional problem comes from a fairly unlikely source: Bald’s Leechbook was a three-volume anatomical and medicinal textbook compiled sometime during the reign of Alfred the Great in the mid-ninth century.
Alongside a description of how to use crushed beetroot to treat a headache and a recipe for a 1,000-year-old eye salve (that in 2015 was found to be effective in treating MRSA), the Leechbook explains how heartache can be treated with a concoction of fennel flowers boiled in milk, drank daily for six days. A sweet, milky drink won’t help you get over your ex, but it might help to reduce the acid in your stomach: Bald’s heartache was, it seems, heartburn.
The use of heartache to refer to an actual pain or ache in the region of the heart remained in place in English right through to the nineteenth century, when the more figurative use became the norm.
As for heartburn itself, it originally meant “passion” or “lustfulness”—literally, ”a burning in the heart”, the supposed root of all romantic feeling—when it first appeared in the language in the thirteenth century (in a poetic retelling of the Bible, no less). Unlike heartache however, this original meaning was short-lived: by the mid 1400s heartburn was already being used to refer to the dyspeptic burning of acid in the upper part of the chest. And we know that thanks to this remedy from another medicinal textbook, dating from the fifteenth century:
For the heartburn: Take wormwood and seethe it in water and drink it.
Liber de Diversis Medicinis (“The Book of Diverse Medicines”), c. 1450
For more stories like these, take a look at The Accidental Dictionary—
which is now available in the US!