I heart language change

Scott Gardner


A while ago I caught a student using the word heartful in her in-class essay, so I sternly cautioned her against using Japanglish words that didn’t really exist in the target language, and I reminded her to check her dictionary if ever in doubt. A few seconds later, after I had gone to help another student, she walked up behind me calling “Sensei!” and tried to stick the screen of her electronic dictionary in my face. There, in her Random House English/Japanese dictionary, was the word heartful, carrying the definition kokoro kara no (“from the heart”). After an uncomfortable silence (during which I returned my dropped jaw to its properly closed position), I snatched the device from her—its bright red exterior matching the color of my face—and began searching for a way to challenge her shocking revelation on this word, a word I’ve discussed in this column before.

I typed in heartfelt, which offered essentially the same Japanese definition as heartful. I queried the other sources in her device, such as Genius, which also contained the offending derivation, and finally I pulled out my own (a black one, clearly demonstrating greater authority) and checked both of its English/Japanese dictionaries, Random House and Readers. In both cases there was heartful, staring at me in disdain. It was as if I had discovered a mythical hybrid creature, like a jackalope, eating the flowers on my dining room table, only to have it turn to me and say, “What are you looking at?”

I stumbled my way through the remainder of class, mentally questioning the authenticity of nearly every two-or-more-syllable word I uttered, then raced back to my office to continue researching this linguistic affront. I checked my electronic dictionary again, its two English/English offerings from Oxford, and took some comfort in finding no heartfuls in either one. But I knew I couldn’t just leave the issue at that. I had to go to the ultimate oracle on language usage—Google (search date January 1, 2013):

heartful -- 4,700,000 hits (Japanese language sites 2,730,000)

heartfelt -- 58,500,000 hits (Japanese language sites 247,000)

With this redeeming data in hand I was ready to confront anyone I saw and make my case for good old heartfelt English—“from the experts,” as that guy on TV always says. I decided to start off by pestering the graduate students across the hall. But as soon as I told them I was using Google as my source, they looked at each other dubiously and turned to their own computers. One of them brought up COCA, the Corpus of Contemporary American English, where she located only two instances of heartful, including one from a Sports Illustrated article, of all places. Heartfelt, on the other hand, had more than a thousand COCA hits, appearing in everything from spoken dialogue to newspapers to academic publications. The grad students’ scholarly approach had managed to both mock and vindicate me at the same time.

So I set out to try and outdo them by checking some online corpora myself. After all, COCA was just American English, wasn’t it? What did the British have to say about heartful? In a far less dramatic display of results, The British National Corpus site I found gave 150 heartfelts and only one heartful, from a 1992 biography of King Charles the Bald. (I think he used to play basketball for the Phoenix Suns.)

I’m not sure of the cause—whether it was being shown up by a bunch of graduate students or becoming preoccupied with Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue research—but I quickly lost the heart to pursue my campaign against heartful, which could well end up being another resilient mutation in the evolution of English. I realize that in adapting such a laissez-faire attitude to language change, this Old Grammarian may be setting himself up to get an earful from language purists, but according to the OED, nobody said earful until about 1917.