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The Scrivener: The Secret Of Happiness

Brian Barratt discovers surprising links to the language of the Vikings when he delves into the origin and meaning of the word "happiness''.

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The other day, I was telling someone about that jolly chorus we used to sing at Sunday School:

I am H-A-P-P-Y,
I am H-A-P-P-Y.
I know I am,
I’m sure I am,
I am H-A-P-P-Y.

We hear a lot about ‘happy-clappy’ worship in some churches nowadays. I wonder where happy came from and what it originally meant?

In Layamon’s Brüt, a wonderful saga of legend and history written 800 years ago, Morgan of Wales has his head chopped off. The writer comments his hap wes ţa wurse! (his hap was the worse!) Not exactly a happy-clappy situation.

Hap meant chance, fortune or simply an occurrence. Later, it had other meanings including some related to cover and covering. A hapharlot was a coarse bedspread use by a harlot. The meaning of harlot was a knave or rascal, a man of loose morals. In the 1400s, it was also applied to a woman.

Mishap has a long history. In 1386, Chaucer wrote in ‘The Monk’s Tale’ mishap wol make hem enemys, I gesse (I think misfortune will make them enemies).

In the 14th century, happy meant literally having good hap, fortuitous. It took on the meaning of ‘pleasure’ in later times.

Happen also emerged in the 14th century, in the sense of to occur, to befall.

These words had their origins in Old Norse (yes, the language of the Vikings). Happ meant chance or good luck. When I asked a Danish ambassador if any modern languages kept the old Viking words, he told me, ‘When the Vikings reached Iceland, both they and their language froze’. Sure enough, happ still means chance or luck in modern Icelandic.

Happenstance is a rather nice word which I think was coined in the USA in the late 1800s. It had the same meaning as happenchance.

Perhaps and hapless obviously come from the same origins. Mayhap was used for a few hundred years but seems have faded away during the 19th century. That’s rather a pity, isn’t it? It sounds so poetic. On the other hand, I think we can manage without behap, which meant to occur or befall.

When we dig deeper, we find that haphazard is also related. It’s easy to see why, once you know the meaning of hap.

So, all in all, if you’re happy it means you’re having a bit of luck. That’s a good reason to keep singing those happy-clappy choruses!

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