A heavy heart

by Mellissa Martinez

For a variety of personal reasons, May has not been a good month for me. Although the sun eventually came out and a few of my amazing students graduated, several not-so-joyous events have culminated to create some sadness in my life. As a consequence, I have been unable to come up with a cheery, summer-themed, word-inspired article—I’m just not feeling it.

Typically linguistic taboos usually involve bodies, bodily fluids, sex acts, death, or murder. Sadness, however, reflects a different sort of taboo; the word is not off limits, but the subject usually is. When asked, “How are you doing?” it is not acceptable to respond with “I’m down in the dumps,” “heavy hearted,” or even worse, “in despair.” No matter how sad we feel, we typically say “okay.” Those of us who wear our hearts on our sleeves might squeak out an “I’ve been better.”

At the risk of breaking this unspoken rule (and maybe bringing a few of my empathetic readers down with me), I have decided to indulge my mood this month. Bear with me as I explore the sorrowful side of our lexicon.

I recently listened to a podcast about the grieving process of children who have lost a parent. One very young girl described her pain as a physical heaviness in her stomach and her throat that she just “couldn’t get rid of.” She articulated something that adults know but are unable to say—sadness is heavy. ‘Grief,’ ‘grave’ and ‘aggravate’ all stem from gravis, ‘burdened or heavy,’ which can be traced to Proto Indo European (PIE) *gwere- ‘heavy.’

Another inescapable element of sadness is the feeling of hopelessness. ‘Despair,’ ‘desperate’ and ‘desperado’ all come from a combination of de- ‘down from’ or ‘away’ and sperare ‘hope.’ The word ‘despondent’ does not come from sperare. Rather, it is derived from de- combined with spondere ‘to promise,’ which is related to one’s soul. ‘Despondence’ is considered more severe than ‘despair’ because it suggests the idea of giving up one’s soul, not merely losing hope. ‘Distraught,’ is a later version of ‘distract,’ which came from distracten, meaning ‘derange the intellect of or drive mad.’

The word ‘sad’ comes from the Old English word sæd, or ‘having one’s fill of food or drink.’ Ironically its PIE root *sa- means ‘to satisfy.’ The notion of having one’s fill slowly transformed to ‘mentally and physically full’ and eventually ‘heavy.’ Related words are ‘saddle’ (load with a burden), satisfy (do enough), saturate (to fill to a full capacity), asset (sufficient estate) and ‘satire,’ which was derived from the Latin satira ‘poetic medley,’ which came from the earlier lanx satura ‘a full dish of various fruit.’

As for figurative language, Americans tend to view happiness as warm, fear as cold and sadness as blue. Consider ‘housewarming,’ ‘warm and fuzzy,’ ‘cold blooded,’ ‘cold sweat’ and ‘the blues.’ Some studies suggest, however, that we (and perhaps the Brits) are alone in these perceptions. In other words, there is linguistic variation when it comes to figurative expressions of mood, which can be attributed to culture.

In a study of English speakers in the US compared to those in India, researchers found that when it came to figurative language, the only thing that the two cultures agreed upon was that fear was white (she was as white as a sheet) and happiness was both up (things were looking up) and bright (look on the bright side) —but let’s not get distracted by happiness just yet.

For some reason I laughed when I learned that the expression ‘pack a sad’ means ‘throw a tantrum’ in New Zealand. Somehow my experiences of sadness have been a bit too subdued to muster up a tantrum. The only connection I could find between ‘tantrum’ and sadness was the fact that the word ‘doldrums’ is thought to be patterned after ‘tantrum.’

While researching for this article, I came across one of the saddest sentences that perhaps I’ve ever seen. The author wrote, “When my mother gave birth to me, she did not know that her child was born with an already broken heart.” This candid description of sadness really pulled at my heart strings, but at the same time, it made me feel a little bit better.

I’m assured by the fact that I was born with a big, healthy heart that has been nourished by life. Sadness for me is temporary and the knowledge of this important fact has somehow made me feel just a bit lighter.




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