This is one of the basic words of English, a word so common that it has a great depth of flavour from all its uses and associations, and the flavours that stand out will be particular to each individual at each time.

For me right now, what comes to mind first is Johnny Cash’s moving rendition of the Nine Inch Nails song “Hurt” – listen to it and watch the video at Words often bring songs to mind for me; another that comes to mind is “Everybody Hurts” by R.E.M. (now there’s also an “Everybody Hurts” by Avril Lavigne for some reason). It also makes me think of two actors: John Hurt, who is very good at looking hurt, and William Hurt, who is a bit too smoothly good looking to quite match his last name. It reminds me, too, of my time working in a bookstore, when we had a big bin of Penguin “hurts”: books that had been damaged a bit and so were marked down. And you can follow hurt down the path of poetry, down the path of country music, down the path of childhood bruises or of adult betrayals. Oh, the heartache and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to…

Hurt comes in many places, in many forms, in many magnitudes. And hurt has the classic versatility of short old English words. It can be a noun, either countable (So many hurts I have felt) or mass object (I’ll open up a can of hurt on you); it can be an adjective (You look hurt at the price we charge for these hurt books); it can be a verb, either present and future (“I’ll hurt you if you hurt me”; “Love hurts” – see Nazareth or Joan Jett) or past (“I hurt you you ’cause you hurt me” – The Pretenders). The noun and the verb have been in English since the 1200s, the adjective since the 1400s – but the past tense used to be hurted, as in “he never hurted any” (as you can hear in “Geordie,” a truly lovely song sung by Joan Baez), now reduced, probably thanks to haplology.

Is the word suited in form to its meaning? It’s hard to tell – it’s one of those words that set the tone. It starts with an exhalation, a sigh but not a soft sigh, more like the sharper exhalation of pain or impatience. In the writing this is followed by a cup u perhaps of sorrows, but in pronunciation the cup is taken away and only the liquid remains: a syllabic liquid /r/ and no vowel at all. And then it knocks smartly at the end with /t/, like the crack of a whip.

What other words is it like? Hunt, heart, curt, hurl, hurtle… Oh, yes, hurtle is derived from hurt. Hurt first meant “knock, strike, dash”, and the iterative ending le gave it a sense related to collision. What other word could be used? A related one is smart, as in “cause pain” (that smarts) or “feel pain” (I’m still smarting). It relates specifically to a sharp pain, and it is from that sharpness that the adjectival sense eventually slid all the way to “intelligent”. It’s cognate with German Schmerz, which seems like a good word for hurt. But smarting is not the same as hurting; smarting is a sharp pain but one you will get over, while hurting is a deeper, more sorrowful pain, one you are less likely even to want to acknowledge openly. But it’s the kind of pain you write songs about.

4 responses to “hurt

  1. Without giving you a hurtin’, I would note that children often use the now-defunct past, as in “I hurted myself, daddy.” I’m not sure it exists outside of infantile dialect, but considering all things Anglo-linguistic, I wouldn’t be surprised, and it wouldn’t hurt to speculate.

  2. I have often corrected my friends ( not infantile friends, of course!) who use ‘I got hurted’. And often, ‘I hurted’ is used as a funny way of talking in Hinglish, here in India.

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