Thursday, April 26, 2018

A tale of two hearths

A tale of two hearths

A hearth is a significant place — significant in many ways. This is a tale of two hearths

You can find the first hearth in many languages. Versions landed in Lithuanian, Russian, Gothic, Old Norse, Old English, Latin, & Sanskrit. Its source is the Proto-Indo European word meaning heat or fire. As one might expect, the English version is the word hearth. But this root meaning heat or fire also gave us:

cremate to burn or consume by fire — 1620s

& cremation — the process of burning or consuming by fire — 1620s

carbonnon-metallic element occurring in all organic compounds — 1789

carboniferous —  containing or yielding carbon or coal — 1799

carbuncle — originally a red, inflamed spot — 1200s

Our second hearth is less expected — nearly incognito. This group of related words came to English through the Latin word focus, which meant home or family, hearth or fireplace. In time it came to mean point of interest. Focus appeared in English in the 1640s. 

In the 1100s, this same Latin root made its way through French & gave us foyer, which initially meant fireplace, but because a fireplace was often an amenity in the greenroom of a theater, the word foyer began to refer to the room for actors who are offstage. By 1859, the word foyer referred to the theater’s lobby. 

The word fuel comes from this same root, & appeared in English about 1200. And in the 1300s at the end of the evening, one had to cover the fire — the Anglo French word for this practice was couvre-feu, which in English became the word curfew (it took until the 1800s for our modern meaning to come into existence),  

And though it didn’t make its way to English until 1994, the word focaccia, a bread baked on the hearth, came to us through Latin & Italian from that same root meaning home or family, hearth, or fireplace.

May your hearths always be warm & may your words all have intriguing stories.

My thanks go out to this week’s sources: Merriam Webster, Collins Dictionary, Wordnik, & Etymonline.


  1. How fun to hear the word curfew comes from couvre and feu. Makes so much sense! Cover-fire time and and get under the blankets, cause it's going to be cold out there. :-)

    And anybody who's been to Brooklyn should have been able to figure out that foyer and fire are the same word. Haha!

    1. Ha! Now I'm hearing a powerfully Brooklyn-esque voice frantically yell, "Foyer! There's a foyer in the foyer!" Thanks.

  2. Hi Charlie! I like this word "hearth" for so many reasons. As a fire (we have wood stove heat, it means comfortable and cozy. Of course the flip side means, carrying wood in and cleaning ash messes.

    1. Hey Jean Ann -- it's been forever. Thanks for coming by. I'm with you on "hearth" -- so much like "heart" but entirely unrelated. I hope all's well around your hearth.

  3. Fascinating, again. Foyers and hearths are welcoming, comfortable places. And I am fine with having a curfew. Also a comforting word for us homebodies.