A Valentine’s Day Thought: Love Is More Than a Word…and so is "Sweetheart"

Most of us who are English-speakers struggle with our own language, and those who don’t, probably should!  We probably always will struggle with it for a variety of reasons.  Not the least of these reasons is that the language, as is true of all languages, is subject to change.  Change by manner of usage, change by neglect, change by design, change by ignorance, and change by error are just some of the forces that cause the language to change.  Some of these changes happen slowly over hundreds of years.  Other changes, in keeping with rapidly expanding technology, science discoveries, and a host of other reasons, occur at a much quicker pace.

What does all this have to do with Valentine’s Day and Love?  I have no idea.
Actually, what it has to do with the context of the words “Valentine’s Day” and “Love” is a third word: “sweetheart.”  We probably use this word more in the context of Valentine’s Day than during all other times of the year combined.  There is even a candy many of us grew up eating just at Valentine’s Day (and perhaps afterward when they were on sale at 50-75% off).  The name of the candy?  “Sweethearts” of course!  
What’s special about the candy isn’t its flavor because it tastes like sweetened aspirin tablets in my opinion.  It’s the little messages on the candy with sweet sayings for our or from our “sweetheart” that makes the candy an indispensable part of Valentine’s Day.

As kids we always gave boxes of these candies to our classmates and then enjoyed reading the little messages to each other.  In retrospect, some of these messages, like “Home Run,” may not have been appropriate for innocent 1st graders.  However, as I recall, we just read them, giggled or humphed, and quickly chomped them down without further thought of the potential moral implications of such messages.  (I still don’t know what that one means.  At least, I’m not admitting to it.)  After all, Valentine’s Day was all about eating as many candies and frosted cookies as we could shove in our faces before we got home and had to share them with anyone else.  As I recall, Valentine’s Day was also about getting sick on the way home from school.

Speaking of making my way home…I seem to have gotten off the blog post path a bit.  I shall return to it.
Love is more than words, but to the human heart, love without words just seems to be lacking something critically important.  We want to see love in action, but we also want to hear the words of love too.
At this point in my linguistic ramble, I am tempted to point out how God loves us in both Word and action (see John 1).  However, that wasn’t remotely the point I was about to make.  Although for a missionary blog that probably would be the safer way to go.  However, as an educator with a fascination for the English language I thought you’d like to know something special about the word “sweetheart.”  
You see the word didn’t used to be spelled this way.  Originally (several hundred years ago), the word was actually spelled “sweetard.”  Seriously!  The meaning was slightly different then as well.  “Sweetard” was a reference to a drunkard.  Somehow, over many generations our English-speaking forefathers and foremothers not just changed this word’s spelling but its meaning.  At least, I hope they did!  Perhaps, there was a time when a “sweetard” turned into a “sweetheart” because the drunkard was a loved one.  I don’t know.  
So, as you wish your “sweetheart” a Happy Valentine’s Day this year, I thought you’d want to do so while in the back of your mind, the original meaning of the word sort of ruins it all for you.  No, no, no…what I mean is, as you express your love to your “sweetheart” this year, perhaps you’ll appreciate that our language is alive and changing for the better (at times), just like your love for your “sweetheart.”
And with that narrow escape, I wish you and your special sweetheart a Happy Valentine’s Day!

After further research, I have discovered that “sweetard” was not actually a reference to a “drunkard.”  The suffix “-ard” was an intensifier for the root word, as in “drunkard.”  Thus, “drunkard” was merely an example of how the word “drunk” was used with this intensifier to further describe a person who was drunk.  So, “sweetard” would have been a Middle English word that intensified the meaning of the word “sweet.”  Unfortunately, this development is made more complex by the fact that as a suffix, “-ard” was used from the Middle High German in a pejorative sense thus intensifying the root word to mean something even worse.  Hmmm…so how could going from “sweet” to intensifying that word to come out as meaning something worse?  The obvious answer is that it doesn’t!  The nice thing about English is there’s always an exception to the rule.  “Sweetard” and later “sweetheart” did always refer to addressing a loved one.  It was never used in a disparaging way.  Well, it never was used in a disparaging way until the 1950s when it was used to describe questionable, if not nefarious, labor contracts (i.e. “sweetheart deals”).  So, even the exception has an exception.  Which leads me to conclude with one question: Why exactly do we use this language?!?


About alanbeth

What’s up? or rather, ¿Qué pasa? Hola, I’m Alan. I’m a missionary living in Mexico. We have a heart for MK Education and so we teach at a local Christian school with MK students as well as nationals and foreign students as well. I occasionally write or have a pic to share with you at my blog, Knowing Your ABCDs, which you can read with a click on the button above. You can read my blog with a click on the button above.
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