Remember that romantic rendition of Let Me Call You Sweetheart by Kate Smith and Dean Martin? Ah, what a beautiful way to say “Be my valentine”!
But how have we come to use that magical word, “sweetheart,” for our beloved? My Toronto-based linguaphile son James and I got into a conversation about this just the other day in our weekly phone call. We agreed to write a pair of columns about it. James would do most of the research and post it on his Sesquiotica site (sesquiotic.com), and I’d draw from his article to write this week’s Valentine’s Day column.
“Sweetheart” has a long, engaging history, James says.
“Some lovely day, 730 or more years ago, ‘sweet’ and ‘heart’ came together. Both were words that had been in English since before English was English, with roots far, far back, and cousins from India to Iceland.
“‘Sweet,’ a word everyone loves, had grown from a Proto-Indo-European root that also became Latin suavis ‘sweet, delicious,’ now bequeathed to us in English as ‘suave,’ and Greek hédus ‘pleasant,’ now appearing at our masquerade ball as part of ‘hedonistic,’ along with a swath of other words meaning ‘sweet.’”
And just as “heart,” the pulse of our being, also pumps emotions, so, too, it “had a similar history at the heart of languages,” James says.
“As when two famous and glamorous people are in the same restaurant at the same time, it was inevitable that these two would soon enough spot each other and come together. And by 1290 they had, as ‘swete heorte,’ which is how they looked when they were young and wild and free. For Chaucer, the happy couple were ‘swete herte’; for Shakespeare, ‘sweet-heart.’ And for American detective novelist Dashiell Hammett, ‘sweetheart,’” where, in The Maltese Falcon (1930), he has Samuel say to Perine, “Yes, sweetheart?”
“Like any famous couple, they show up in many places, even where you don’t expect them. You can buy small sugar hearts called Sweethearts, each bearing a message (like a confectionary fortune cookie); you can make a sweetheart deal if you’re negotiating a contract.
“But especially at Valentine’s Day, you want your true sweetheart. And you will want your sweetheart to let you call them sweetheart.”
And so, my wonderful wife of nearly 57 years, “Let me call you Sweetheart, I’m in love with you. Let me hear you whisper that you love me too.”
Happy Valentine’s Day, Mary Anna!