Here we are in the middle of the Corona Virus, many of us staying home -- some happy about being home, others not so happy. 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 the meaning depicted here, 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:
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. And are you mostly happy about staying home these days, or mostly not-so-happy about it?
My thanks go out to this week’s sources: OED, Etymonline, US History.org & Wordnik
I write for teens, narrate audio books, bake bread, play music, and ponder the wonder of words in a foggy little town on California's central coast.
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