Though these days the term wordmonger refers to "a writer or speaker who uses language pretentiously or carelessly," please join me in proposing a new meaning. A fishmonger appreciates and promotes fish, therefore, a wordmonger does the same for words.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Happiness


Happiness

Just imagine how differently a happy evening might look if designed by an extreme introvert vs. an over-the-top extrovert. Most of us recognize the relativity of a term like happiness. Oddly, very few of us ever apply the primary meaning of the word happiness.

Most modern dictionaries list the first meaning of happiness something like this:  good fortune, luck or prosperity,. This leaves gladness, delight or pleasure in the not-so-coveted place of the second meaning.

So what definition of happiness was in the minds of the framers of the Constitution when they included in a citizen’s “certain unalienable Rights” the pursuit of happiness? The Oxford English Dictionary would suggest that in the mid-1700s three definitions were in effect, in this order:

1. Good fortune or luck in life or in a particular affair; success, prosperity

2. The state of pleasurable content of mind which results in success or the attainment of what is considered good

3. Successful or felicitous aptitude, fitness, suitability or appropriateness; felicity

Given the framers’ collective focus on business brought on by their struggles with King George, it seems a reasonable argument that they may have been applying that first meaning – a meaning very few contemporary English speakers apply to the word happiness.

We modern English speakers haven’t lost that meaning altogether, as we do use hap- words that relate back to the idea of prosperity, luck, or good fortune:

happenstance
perhaps
haphazard
happen
mishap
hapless

And might happy-go-lucky actually translate to something more like luck-come-luck-go?

Even the first two meanings of the simpler word happy in the 1700s were:
1.    Coming or happening by chance; fortuitous
2.    Having good “hap” or fortune, coming by fortune; favored by lot, position or other external circumstance

All this connection to luck and fortune has to do with the roots of happiness.  The word comes from the Old Norse word happ, meaning good luck, which came from a Proto-Indo-European word meaning to suit, fit or succeed.

So does your modern understanding of happiness lean toward good fortune & prosperity, or is your happiness a pleasurable & felicitous content of mind? Please let me know in the comments section.


My thanks go out to this week’s sources: OED, Etymonline, US History.org & Wordnik

3 comments:

  1. Phrases like "happy chance" seem a little redundant now!

    My understanding leans toward "a pleasurable and felicitous content of mind"--something I distinguish from "joy", which is "an unassailable contentment of mind that has more to do with inner peace than circumstances."

    Words are interesting things, aren't they?

    ReplyDelete
  2. So interesting. I never thought about what the meaning of "happiness" might have been for our forefathers when they wrote those remarkable words. Good fortune, good luck, good genes...all contributing factors. Happiness for me is about acceptance and gratefulness. When I am most grateful I am most happy.

    ReplyDelete
  3. I like the meaning of happiness as "fortunate." It makes sense that the 18th century meaning was a little different. "Happiness" in contemporary use is a kind of joy or exhilaration that's usually transitory. The earlier meaning sounds more sustainable.

    ReplyDelete