Dishearten

I find myself thinking much on the word dishearten today.

The etymology is actually very straightforward. You have to love English words that way. This is a good, old fashioned English word that goes back to solid Anglo-Saxon roots. Indeed the word itself is very germanic insofar it’s a compound word and very English in that it’s a compound that mixes Latin and German:

dis heart en

The heart of dishearten (pun intended) is obviously “heart”. This word had deep German roots. Heart here is less anatomical and more poetic, having more to do with the association of the heart as the center of personality and vigor. Heart is bracketed by a Latin prefix, dis-, and a Germanic suffix -en.

The suffix is an interesting one, it basically “verbifies” a noun by giving a meaning of “to make” with the noun. You see this with words like “fast-en”, “sweet-en” “haste-en”. So heart-en has a sense of to make heart, or to instill with “hearty-ness”.

Dis- is a Latin prefix that has a negation quality. Unlike other negation prfixes like “un-” or “a-” though “dis-” has a residue of an earlier meaning centered on separating which is what gives “dishearten” its power.

For me, “dishearten” has a very visceral force. It conveys a sense of being physically stricken and having that fighting spirit that one used to have taken away. One part of the power of “dishearten” is the sense of contrast of what now is with what once was. It conveys a sense of wounding and loss that may well be permanent. It makes me think of the myth of the Fisher King, who is wounded, impotent, disheartened and, yes, dispirited. This idea too forms the background for T. S. Eliot’s poem The Waste Land which conveys a disheartening picture of a sterile, barren society.

Another important resonance with dishearten is an implied agency. There is a sense in the word that one is disheartened not by accident or happenstance. Some one or some thing happens to cause it. You cannot dishearten yourself, another does it to you. And that conveys a sense again of battle and loss. It also brings to mind another word on my mind a lot and one I’ll likely write about some other time: overwhelmed.