December 31, 2010

Words of the Month - The Root of Happiness

        There's a folk tale from the Brothers Grimm called in English "Lucky Hans," or "Hans in Luck."  In case you don't know it, it tells of a young man on a journey home who, every time he becomes dissatisfied, makes a bargain with a passerby and feels himself very fortunate.  The joke is that the bargains always make him the loser in the view of any wise and worldly reader - he trades his seven years of wages for a horse, his horse for an old cow, the cow for a medium pig, and so on, until he has nothing left at all… at which point he jumps for joy at being relieved of all his burdens, and heads on home thinking he's the luckiest man alive.  There's plenty to think about with this story - how lucky is Hans, really?  One could argue either way - but there's an added dimension to the question in the original German.  The word for lucky, glücklig, is also the word for happy.  So you can also ask how happy is Hans?  He's always pleased with every bargain he makes, but he's never content enough to stick with what he's got. One could argue either way.
For good luck in the New Year - twelve rabbit's feet!
        When I learned the German vocabulary back in high school I thought it very strange and potentially confusing to have the same word mean both happy and lucky.  But then just recently the word happenstance caught my attention and it occurred to me that here in English, too, happiness shares a root with chance.  Think about it…

happy - from Middle English hap, which got it from Old Norse happ meaning luck or chance.  The word first meant fortunate.  (14th century)
happen - to take place or occur, but often more specifically to occur by chance, as in "I happened to run into an old friend at the supermarket." (14th century)
mishap - an unfortunate accident (14th century)
hapless - unlucky (16th century)
haphazard - by chance, random (16th century)
        The adverb in a pleased manner is happily, and the adverb meaning by chance is the now archaic haply, so despite the shared root, we don't have to wonder which meaning someone intends, (giving us an advantage over German).
        Suddenly the phrase "by some happy chance" sounds ridiculously redundant!

        Clearly our language developed under the belief that the root of happiness is chance, even if some might argue nowadays that we are all in control of our own happiness.  But either way, I wish you all a Happy New Year, both pleasant and full of good luck.

[Picture: Three Rabbits, rubber block print by AEGN, 2009.]

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