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shameless pleading






Lather, rinse, forget.

Dear Word Detective:  I am retired but substitute teach at the elementary level in Virginia.  We were using the word “hardship” and one of my fourth graders asked about the word.  I said that I seemed to remember, from a long time ago, that the word had something to do with the many terrible things endured by the Pilgrims, etc., and that the word “hard” had originally been another word.  Maybe it was “heart.”  I just don’t remember!  I have promised the kids an answer and hope you can help me out.  I have “Googled” this and that to no avail. — Sherry Anderson.

This is a good question in its own right, of course, but it also illustrates my pet theory of human memory.  You once heard a story linking the word “hardship” to the Pilgrims, possibly suggesting that the “hard” part was originally “heart.”  My guess is that it was a heartwarming, inspiring story, as such stories tend to be (especially those involving the Pilgrims).  You have, however, long since forgotten the story.  That’s because, I firmly believe, the human brain actually incorporates an excellent flapdoodle-detector, although it often works quite slowly.  Over time, your brain realized that it was storing useless nonsense and decided, quite reasonably, to delete it.  Forgetting ridiculous things you’ve heard is, in other words, a good thing.  I just wish we could speed up the process so it kicks in before Election Day.

So, in any case, the story you seem to have heard about “hardship” was bunk.  “Hardship” has always been simply “hardship” since it first appeared in English in the early 13th century.  Its original meaning was “the quality of being hard to bear; severity, painful difficulty” (as in “Her brute of a husband was a hardship”), but since the 15th century the term has been used in a more general sense for a condition or state that causes suffering (“Poverty and hardship in childhood may lead to a life of poor health”).  The “hard” part of “hardship” refers to the difficulty of enduring the circumstance;  “ship” as a suffix simply means “the state or condition of being.”

If it was indeed “heartship” that the story you heard years ago proposed as the original form of “hardship,” the idea seems to be still lurking out there on the internet.  There are a bit more than five hundred Google hits for “heartship” (“They believe that because I want to continue this relationship I am taking myself down a trail of pain and heartship”).  Almost all of these seem to be cases of simple confusion based on mishearing the word “hardship” (similar to the process that transforms “an arm and a leg” into “a nominal egg”).  I can’t find any Pilgrim-related stories about “heartship,” but if the mangled word spreads a bit more, someone is bound to invent a brand new fable about it.

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