And still palpitating

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

5 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. shoreacres
    Mar 09, 2016 @ 19:39:28

    It’s been decades since I’ve heard the expression “pit-a-pat.” It is wonderful, as is the whole of Webster’s definition.

    Those heart palpitations are implied in another phrase that’s been around for some time: “be still, my heart,” or, “be still, my beating heart.”

    Mary Elizabeth Coleridge used it in her poem, “All One”:

    “Be still, my beating heart, be still!
    There is no hope for thee to-night.
    The fading of the wintry light
    Has made a blackness of the hill.

    Be still, be still, my beating heart!
    For thee to-night there is no fear.
    The moon has risen white and clear,
    And we shall neither meet nor part.”

    Nicholas Rowe could have used “palpitates,” but he chose to be more poetic in “Tamerlane, A Tragedy,” when he wrote,”My beating heart bounds with exulting motion.”

    Even the 1950s had a way to express some of those palpitations. Behold, Perry Como’s version. I’d forgotten that his delightful little song was based on Emmanuel Chabrier’s “España Rhapsody.”


  2. Maria F.
    Mar 14, 2016 @ 12:33:22

    Now see how interesting the medical field defines “palpation”:
    “A heart palpitation is the sensation that your heart has skipped a beat or added an extra beat. It may feel like your heart is racing, pounding, or fluttering. You may become overly aware of your heartbeat. This sensation is sometimes also felt in the neck, throat, or chest.”-
    While in Spanish, the definition is very similar.

    This is certainly one word that retained the same meaning as in Spanish, although much more in the medical field. The verb remained the same:
    “palp (n.”feeler,” 1842, from French palpe, from Latin palpus “feeler,” related to palpare “to touch, feel”. One does “breast palpations”, to examine breasts. One also says: “palparse” los senos.

    The fact that “palpitaciones” is a romantic expression is where English departs and goes back to “beats”.


    • Steve Schwartzman
      Mar 14, 2016 @ 22:06:00

      Yes, you’ve got to hand it to the Romance languages, or at least Spanish and Italian, for their palpitating hearts, as in the Italian opera quotation above and your palpitaciones.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

If you encounter an unfamiliar technical term in any of these postings, check the Glossary in the bar across the top of the page.

©2011–2018 Steven Schwartzman

%d bloggers like this: