Right to the Heart

Affairs of the heart are always complex; I think that goes without saying. The English language has a few words which demonstrate this complexity. Bittersweet is a fairly straightforward, literal one. Another similar word is poignant, meaning evoking a keen sadness and regret. Even that definition doesn’t quite convey all of its connotations, as it refers to a nostalgic, gentle kind of sadness. It’s not exactly positive, but it’s a soft, contemplative type of sadness.

Interestingly, its origins reveal a sharper edge to the original meaning of the word. It comes from the identical Old French word meaning sharp or pointed, as though the feeling of sadness pricks one’s heart (the related word poignard refers to a long knife with a tapering blade). We tend to think of emotional distress in terms of physical pain. If we’re upset, we can say that we’re hurt. If you’ve got some romance-related pain, you have heartache. If things get really bad then your heart breaks, sadly.

Perhaps the most unusual thing about the word poignant, from a modern perspective, is how it shares an origin with the word pungent. Both come from the same Latin root verb pungere. And while pungent and poignant are now quite different, they do both share the sense of piercing and sharpness. Something poignant might pierce your heart a little, while something pungent might have a sharp smell and pierce your nostrils. It’s interesting that despite the evident richness of the English language, when you really get down to it, we use a relatively small number of concepts to communicate with. You can refer to a smell, a sad event, and a weapon in remarkably similar ways. That’s not a criticism of the limitations of the language though. Rather, I think that the fact that we never get confused about which of these situations are being referred to shows how versatile the language is, and how we can sometimes do so much with so little.

11 thoughts on “Right to the Heart

  1. Or in the case of my writing, how I can do so little with so much. Thanx for another really interesting and thought provoking post. I just used the word poignant in a post yesterday trying to evoke a sense of longing and sadness for things past. My regret was for the fact that it was past and cannot be returned to but I guess I got it right. ~~dru~~

    Liked by 1 person

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