Get happy with the word ‘happy’
From one of the first Mr Men and one of the seven dwarves to happy hour, happy is a word that crops up from childhood onwards. We take a look at how it has been used in the English language in various idioms, as well as its history and some synonyms.
Happy through the years
The adjective happy was originally used of a person or an event to mean ‘favoured by good fortune; lucky’, a sense that is retained in happy accident and similar fixed collocations. The word wended its way through various other senses – ‘that happens or presents itself by chance’, ‘(of a person) dextrous, skilful, especially in one’s choice of appropriate words’, ‘(of an action) pleasantly appropriate to the occasion or circumstances’ – before arriving at its current most common sense, ‘feeling or showing pleasure or contentment’.
Happy is now also used to mean ‘slightly intoxicated’ and ‘exhibiting harmony or cooperation; marked by a pleasant sense of harmony and mutual goodwill’ – states which, of course, could come hand in hand.
Some other words you could have used for happy (in its current most common sense) over time include eadi, i-seli, i-sundful, seely, beneurous, benewred, felicious, and faust. This last comes from the Latin faustus, from favere (to favour) and is only coincidentally the same as the surname of the man who sold his soul to the devil in German legends, adapted by Christopher Marlow and Goethe, amongst others.
Call no man happy till he dies
This cheerful proclamation, and variants upon it, is found as far back as the 16th century. It was originally with reference to the story of the Athenian sage Solon and the rich king Croesus, and a supposed interview concerning the nature of happiness. Equivalents of this phrase are found in the works of both Sophocles and Ovid, and call no man happy till he dies is now used broadly to indicate that one cannot be considered to be completely happy or fortunate until one’s entire life has passed without unhappiness, grief, etc.
Happy hunting ground
This phrase originally referred to the optimistic hope of Native Americans for good hunting grounds in the afterlife; the first example in the current OED entry quotes James Fenimore Cooper’s famous 1826 novel The Last of the Mohicans: ‘A young man has gone to the happy hunting grounds!’ Happy hunting ground is now most commonly used in a figurative sense, of any place where success or enjoyment is obtained.
Happy as a…
What do a clam, Larry, and a sandboy have in common? They all turn up in idioms starting as happy as a – though the earliest known instance of a phrase on these lines is as happy as a licentious disposition wanting wealth, from 1601.
Various theories have been forward regarding the identity of Larry (which you can read about in our blog post about curious name expressions), but what makes a clam or a sandboy particularly merry? As happy as a sandboy is probably the only place you’re likely come across the word sandboy; it probably originally denoted a boy hawking sand for sale, and the reasons for his happiness have been disputed. Turning to clams, it has been suggested that this North American phrase was originally as happy as a clam at high tide, where they would be unable to be dug up by predators. The more vulgar modern equivalent, as happy as a pig in sh*t (or muck) cloaks its origins less, while the Australianism as happy as a bastard on Father’s Day is used to denote somebody who is very unhappy.
Campers and bunnies
A contented person can colloquially be known as a happy camper (originally in American English only) while they’d be a happy bunny in British English. Both are often found in the negative – that is, suggesting that somebody is not a happy camper or not a happy bunny. It’s not entirely evident why campers and bunnies were signalled out for this treatment.
Trigger-happy, Demob-happy, etc.
Happy can be found as the second element in compound adjectives relating to (temporary) mental instability associated with the first element, particularly during and following the Second World War. This could either refer to being in a dazed, nervous, or light-headed state as a result of excessive strain, in terms like bomb-happy, sand-happy, and demob-happy (where demob is short for demobilization or demobilized), or acting in an irresponsible, obsessive, or precipitate manner – as in knife-happy, strike-happy, and trigger-happy.
Broader use has been established for some: demob-happy, for example, is now used to mean ‘feeling elated because one is about to leave a stressful or responsible job or situation’, while slap-happy is used informally to mean ‘cheerfully casual in a careless or irresponsible way’.
Slap-happy shouldn’t be confused with happy slapping, a chiefly British term for an unfortunate trend starting in the mid-2000s whereby a group of people assault a stranger at random while filming the incident on a mobile device, so as to circulate the images or post them online.
Many happy returns
Many happy returns is a shortening of the phrase many happy returns of the day, wishing the recipient many future celebrations of a similar nature. While it could originally be used on an special day (the earliest example in the current OED entry, for instance, relates to New Year), it is now used specifically on a person’s birthday. From the early 20th century onwards, this has even been abbreviated to many happies in colloquial English.
The happy day
The day on which a wedding is planned to take place has been known by the rather vague term the happy day for centuries. The earliest example according to the OED’s current entry is found in Samuel Richardson’s 1740 novel Pamela – where, ironically, the modern reader is unlikely to celebrate the marriage in question. Happy couple is also used of a newly married or engaged couple while happy event is the birth of a baby: both of these date back to the 17th century.
In current English this is ‘a period of the day when drinks are sold at reduced prices in a bar or other licensed establishment’, and often lasts rather longer than an hour. It was originally used in relation to the U.S. Navy, meaning ‘a period of time during which entertainment of various types is provided for crew on board a ship’.