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What could be meant by game in the following?

"He could tell of a wicked widow ... who smiled so sweetly upon the smugglers when they sold her silks and laces, cheap as tape and gingham. She called them gallant fellows, hearts of game, and bade them bring her more."

From Herman Melville's White Jacket CHAPTER LXXV (1850)
also previous Source: Herman Melville - Mardi, and A Voyage Thither (1849)

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    Can you provide more context? Where did you see this? – Robusto Dec 13 '18 at 16:51
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    According to Google Books, this is a quote from: Herman Melville, "White Jacket; or, The World in a Man-of-War." London 1850. – njuffa Dec 13 '18 at 16:57
  • @rjuffa provides the context, all right, but unfortunately that would seem to put us little closer to the truth. The only use of game that seems to fit is the adjectival form: Either "Plucky and unyielding in spirit; resolute" or "ready and willing"; yet the usage in the quote is definitely a noun. I suppose we can chalk that up to the archaic, (to modern ears) euphuistic style of the mid-19th century. – Robusto Dec 13 '18 at 17:12
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    What @Robusto said. This use of game = plucky is pretty dated today, but some people still use the somewhat later nuance as in I'm game = I'm up for it / willing [to participate in something]. I see Google Books has over 100 instances of his game heart with this sense - it's just that we wouldn't normally expect that to be expressed as his heart of game. – FumbleFingers Dec 13 '18 at 18:38
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    ...perhaps Melville was influenced by the equally dated his heart of oak, which has over 1800 written instances in GB. – FumbleFingers Dec 13 '18 at 18:40
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Melville's use of game = plucky is pretty dated today, but some people still use the word with a somewhat different (and later) nuance as in I'm game = I'm up for it / willing [to participate in something].

Google Books has over 100 instances of his game heart with the stout / resolute / brave sense.

Melville was probably influenced by the equally dated his heart of oak (over 1800 written instances in Google Books), which has essentially the same meaning.

There's no obvious reason1 why the specific combinations heart of oak and game heart should have become idiomatically established in preference to oak heart and heart of game. Melville certainly wasn't breaking any rules of grammar by choosing the latter - it's just that it was "less idiomatic" even back in 1849 when he was writing Mardi, and A Voyage Thither.


Etymologically speaking, adjectival game here derives from the noun game meaning fun, sport, amusement. It's only "indirectly" related to the derivative game = animals hunted for sport, though of course Melville may have intended his readers to make that connection.


1 But I would point out that elsewhere in the book, Melville uses heart of grace. I don't know how to articulate exactly what "grammatical rule" prevents us using the form grace heart, but that one is so jarring to me I feel sure there must be one.

  • @KJO: Indeed. I was actually quite surprised to find 64 instances of the word heart in the relatively short text you linked to. Even when I restricted it to heart of, I still had 20 separate occurrences to look at! – FumbleFingers Dec 14 '18 at 15:56
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Since I am looking for a German equivalent, may I suggest (as a compromise between @KJO and @user307254) a 'Jack of Hearts' or 'golden boy' which here seems to come close to the context.

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Here there is a metaphorical transfer of 'hearts of any card game' to nominate particular people. According to Merriam-Webster's Dictionary: HEARTS (plural) : the suit comprising cards marked with hearts. For example, the five of hearts.

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    This seems a strange and specific response to a question that provides no clues in that direction. – Robusto Dec 13 '18 at 16:52

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