hearth

A word for where the heart meets the earth: the place on the floor above which the fire burns. Although the sound of the word might seem to have a cold breath about it, no one seems to notice, for it can also be the sound of a breath blowing to help the tinder to ignite or the embers to glow, and the word just carries an air of homey, old-fashoned warmth around with it from sense and context. And don’t the h and h look like the ends of a fire grate? Such an essential word didn’t have to be borrowed, of course; it’s always been in English, since before there was English to be in, and the only spelling change was from o to a (and the final th was ð). The pronunciation has shifted a wee bit more. In Scottish and northern English dialects, this word still rhymes with earth (both of which, in the mists of time, had a vowel sound more like what we say in air now), but elsewhere it’s supposed to be said like heart with a fricative rather than a stop at the end (but many people who have not heard it will say it to rhyme with earth on seeing it, I’ve found). Since modern homes have no need of a hearth per se – though some still have one – hearth is seen mainly in historical works, metaphors and clichés now. Home is where the hearth is – hearth and home is a common coupling, and The Cricket on the Hearth is the name of a Christmas story by Charles Dickens. But hearths still get modern literal mention; you will find from collocations that a stone hearth is most often spoken of, and sometimes a brick hearth. Whatever the material, though, when you hear the word, it’s as warming as an Irish coffee on a winter night.

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