The last post looked at some words derived from Latin palpare, which meant ‘to stroke, touch softly, pat.’ From palpare the Romans themselves created the frequentative palpitare, with meanings that included ‘to move frequently and quickly, to tremble, throb, pant,’ and ultimately ‘to palpitar/palpitate.’ The 1913 Webster’s Dictionary gave as senses of the modern verb ‘to beat rapidly and more strongly than usual; to throb; to bound with emotion or exertion; to pulsate violently; to flutter.’ In 1828 Noah Webster had given this wonderful definition: ‘To beat gently; to beat, as the heart; to flutter, that is, to move with little throws; as we say, to go pit a pat; applied particularly to a preternatural or excited movement of the heart.’
Ah, to go pit a pat, especially when experiencing a preternatural or excited movement of the heart! Just the stuff of operas, whose Italian lyrics seem preternaturally full of the verb palpitar. For example, in the aria “M’apparì,” or “She appeared to me,” from Flotow’s Martha, we find in the Italian version of the German original:
Il pensier di poter palpitar con lei d’amor,
Può sopir il martir che m’affana e strazia il cor….
The thought of being able to “palpitate” with her in love
Can soften the torture that wracks me and torments my heart….
Standing in contrast to those stilted lyrics are the opening lines of Paul Valéry’s great poem “Le Cimetière marin,” “The Seaside Cemetery”:
Ce toit tranquille, où marchent des colombes,
Entre les pins palpite, entre les tombes….
Este techo tranquilo, donde andan [unas] palomas,
Entre los pinos palpita, entre las tumbas….
This tranquil roof, on which pigeons are walking,
Palpitates among the pines, among the tombs….
And in contrast to both of those is the type of pathological palpitación/palpitation that doctors talk about, and that is ‘a rapid and irregular heartbeat’ not caused, except in rare cases, by love and its attendant passions.
© 2016 Steven Schwartzman