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Spring gets a hearty, not hardy, welcome

A look at two words of different backgrounds that cover some of the same ground.

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Rhododendron yedoense var. poukhanense, commonly known as poukhanense azalea, grows alongside the edge of a building in Boston, MA.

Mary Knox Merrill

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The rhododendron beside my front door spent most of the winter encased in what I can only describe as a magnificent helmet of ice. This was owing to the bush’s proximity to a drainpipe, which has fortunately been doing its job of carrying moisture down from the roof reasonably well. Moisture had splashed onto the bush and frozen, producing a shape the most imaginative sculptor would have been hard pressed to invent.

With the recent thaw, however, the ice helmet diminished, and one evening it occurred to me that it might be a kindness to the bush to see if I could pull the thing off altogether. As soon as I touched it, it fell to the ground with a thunk. Reaching down to pick it up, I found that, from where I stood above on my stoop, I couldn’t even lift it.

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When landscapers talk about plants being “hardy,” this is what they mean: The bush that has been covered for weeks with ice and snow eventually emerges intact, complete with buds about to burst into bloom.

A reader wrote in a while back to ask about hardy and its near-homophone hearty. The two words sound alike, especially when pronounced with an American accent that turns the “t” of “hearty” into a “d” – that “voices” the consonant, a phonetician would say. The two words are different – except that they overlap.

Hardy, meaning “bold, daring, fearless,” came into English about 1200, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary. The word comes from the Old French hardi.

Dictionaries today give “bold” as one of the meanings of “hardy,” and even “audacious” or “brazen.” But the more common sense of hardy nowadays is that of “able to withstand adverse conditions.” It’s applied to plants able to survive winter cold and also extended to fans of chronically losing teams.

The hard particle lives on in proper names. Hardy is a common surname, in both the English-speaking and French-speaking worlds. Richard, as a given name, can be interpreted as “bold ruler.” Richard the Lionheart of England is the poster child here. A number of other personal names – such as Bernard and Gerard in their various forms in English and other languages – incorporate that same idea of “boldness.”

Hearty, meanwhile, is etymologically “full of heart,” in a metaphorical sense, which included ideas of “soul, spirit, will, desire; courage; mind, intellect,” as the Online Etymology Dictionary notes. When you speak of learning something “by heart,” you’re drawing on the old idea of “heart” as the seat of intellect. Our English courage comes ultimately from the Latin word for “heart.” The idea is of “inner strength.”

So one word comes from Old French and the other from Old English. Their essential meanings are different but not unrelated.

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After this winter, though, even the hardy plants will give spring a welcome that is hearty.


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