The meaning of happiness

Today is the International Day of Happiness so websites and blogs will probably be awash with videos featuring “Happy” by Pharrell Williams (or check out the 24-hours of Happy version).

But what about the true meaning of happiness (or at least, its etymology)? Here it is, courtesy of the Online Etymology Dictionary:

happy (adj.)

late 14c., “lucky, favored by fortune, prosperous;” of events, “turning out well,” from hap (n.) “chance, fortune” + –y (2). Sense of “very glad” first recorded late 14c. Ousted Old English eadig (from ead “wealth, riches”) and gesælig, which has become silly. Meaning “greatly pleased and content” is from 1520s. Old English bliðe “happy” survives as blithe. From Greek to Irish, a great majority of the European words for “happy” at first meant “lucky.” An exception is Welsh, where the word used first meant “wise.”

Used in World War II and after as a suffix (e.g. bomb-happy, flak-happy) expressing “dazed or frazzled from stress.” Happy medium is from 1778. Happy ending in the literary sense recorded from 1756. Happy as a clam (1630s) was originally happy as a clam in the mud at high tide, when it can’t be dug up and eaten. Happy hunting ground, the reputed Indian paradise, is attested from 1840, American English. Related: Happier; happiest.

If you’d like to ring the changes, Mental Floss has compiled the following list of antiquated words for “happy” which they say we should bring back:

1. Chirky From the late 19th century, meaning “cheerful.”

2. In high snuff An expression for “good mood,” used from the late 17th century until the 1930s.

3. Over the moon Before humans literally went beyond the moon, this popular phrase from the 1930s means “overjoyed.”

4. Gassed Started out meaning “intoxicated,” but by the 1950s it just meant happy.

5. Tickled As in “tickled pink.”

6. Merry-pin Also started as a reference to tipsiness, this referred to a general good ol’ time in the 19th century.

7. Ricochet In the 19th century, this bouncy term also meant “splendid.”

8. All callao This 19th century sailor’s slang either referred to the Peruvian port of Callo or acted as a play on the word alcohol. Or both.

9. Gaudeamus From the Latin for “let us rejoice,” this oldie refers to a merry jamboree.

10. Kvelling From the Yiddish for “so happy and proud my heart is overflowing.”

11. Chuffed This current slang in the UK certainly needs to make a trip across the pond.

12. Delira and excira A term the Irish use to mean “delirious and excited.” We need to borrow this one too.

13. Gladsome This classic from the 14th century doesn’t get used enough anymore.

14. To lick the eye This confusing 19th century gem was used to describe someone who was extremely pleased.

15. Cock-a-hoop From the phrase “to set the cock on the hoop,” meaning open the tap and let the good times flow.

Which do you think are worth reviving? Have you any favourite “happy” words?

Other posts you might like:

English words the world likes

If the shoe doesn’t fit: eggcorns and etymology

For words to even better effect – just add music


By Marian Dougan

Published by Marian Dougan

Marian is a translator and editor (specialising in web content) currently based in Glasgow, Scotland. Marian previously lived in Italy for over 20 years, working as a language teacher, translator and policy analyst with the British Embassy in Rome. A qualified member of the Institute of Translation and Interpreting (ITI) and its Italian-language and ITI Scotnet networks, she is currently Scotnet's Convenor and Deputy Webmaster. From 2003 to 2006 Marian taught translation skills at the Italian Department of Glasgow University and now gives Master Classes as part of the new Masters in Translation Studies course. She also conducts web-writing and usability workshops to help people improve their websites and communicate more effectively with their readers, users and customers. In September 2014 Marian obtained User Experience Certification, with specialisation in Web Design, from the Nielsen Norman Group. She loves language, especially English, and is convinced that learning languages opens up people’s minds and horizons (and increases their brainpower!). To share her enthusiasm, she advises schools and educational authorities on language skills and enterprise. She gives talks to pupils on how to combine language studies with other subjects and so enhance their potential and increase their career options. Marian is an active member of organisations such as: Scottish Council Development and Industry (SCDI); Association of Scottish Businesswomen; Dunbartonshire Chamber of Commerce and the Italian Chamber of Commerce in Scotland. She also loves architecture, design, fashion (British Vogue!), cities and chocolate. She’s a great fan of Twitter and you can also find her on Linkedin.

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