Recently, controversy has erupted regarding the use of merry Christmas vs. happy holidays. Though the controversy is intriguing, I find myself etymologically interested in the difference between wishing someone a merry time vs. wishing that same someone a happy time.
Merry made its way into Old English before records of such things were kept. Merry meant agreeable, sweet, pleasant or melodious. Merry’s source was a Proto-Germanic word meaning brief. Yes, brief. Some argue the connection came through the idea that happiness is fleeting, therefore merriness is also fleeting. Others argue a connection to the thinking behind the idiom time flies when you’re having fun or the idea that one enjoys one’s pastime in brief jots between sessions of getting more important work done. During Middle English, merry broadened its meanings to include fine, handsome, pleasant-sounding, & pleasant-tasting.
Happy made its way into the language in the late 1300s. It originally meant lucky, favored by fortune, prosperous, or turning out well. These meanings morphed within the century to very glad, which grew in the following century to mean pleased & content.
Blessed is another adjective we hear over the holidays. The adjective form showed up in English in the 1200s, initially meaning both supremely happy & consecrated. Blessed came from the verb bless, which seems to have been a part of Old English from the start, initially meaning to consecrate, make holy or give thanks. The verb bless has what to the modern sensibility seems an undignified beginning. It came from a Proto-Germanic word, meaning to hallow or mark with blood. Those who first translated the English Bible appear to have chosen this word in an attempt to make the newly arriving Christian religion feel familiar.
Joy is another word we see & hear at the holidays. Joy appeared in English in the 1200s meaning a feeling of pleasure & delight. It came through the French word joie, which meant delight, bliss, joyfulness (& was also used to refer to erotic pleasure). The French word came from a Latin word meaning expressions of pleasure or sensual delight. The Latin word’s source — the grandmother word of all this joy -- was a Proto-Indo-European word meaning rejoice, which throws some light on how those Latin-&-French speaking folks might have been rejoicing.
Whether you wish your friends & family happiness or merriment may the season find you experiencing whatever sort of joy, blessedness, happiness or merriment appeals most to you.
Big thanks to this week’s sources: Merriam Webster, etymonline.com, the OED, & wordnik.com.
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.