This student evidently never heard (even on an Oldies show) the lyric “How can you mend a broken heart?” Had he, he would have understood that if your heart is broken, at some prior moment something had to break your heart? How about “Don’t go breaking my heart”? (Perhaps he heard “Don’t go braking my heart”?) “Only love can break a heart”?
At any rate, “heartbreak” is the noun meaning the state of having a heart that has been broken. To get the noun right, you have to get the verb right. And if you get the right verb, how can you get the wrong noun?
I love the image of the broken heart. I have, on occasion, felt my heart breaking, physically snapping into pieces, leaving sharp shards in my chest for days or weeks to come, an emotional trauma that has real physical manifestations.
If my student was thinking in terms of images, then what he saw was a heart suddenly being brought to a stop, perhaps screaming as the brakes were applied. I like that image too, actually.
We talk about suspense as being “heart-stopping”; or at first sight of the one who will become the beloved we sing “Suddenly my heart stood still.” Of course both these examples assume that the heart starts up again, either once the suspense is resolved or when we become accustomed to having the beloved around. But what if the beloved has been around but is now walking out the door, or Kissing Another, or changing to “SINGLE” status on Facebook? That would stop the heart of the lover suddenly, and possibly permanently. “Put on the brakes” doesn’t necessarily mean “stop”; it might mean “slow down”—but in the case of an intense love affair, there is no such thing as slowing down. The heart races, or the heart brakes to a halt. Heartbrake must describe the feeling enshrined in so many old love songs, “Feel like I’m gonna die.”
In Kate Chopin’s “The Story of an Hour,” the main character suffers from a chronically weak heart. When news reaches them that her husband has been killed in a train accident, her sister and the family physician fear that she will die. But instead, she discovers an intoxicating sense of self, of freedom, and begins to imagine a future shaped by her own hands and desires instead of his. And then, suddenly, her husband walks through the door (he wasn’t even on the train!), and she drops dead. The physician erroneously attributes her death to joy at the sight of her husband suddenly restored to her. The reader knows it’s really heartbreak. Or, in this case, heartbrake.