Word of the Day: Happy

August 31, 2010 in Word of the Day

This is a common word in Shakespeare, with over two hundred hits in the Open Shakespeare search engine. Needless to say, I’m not going to go through all of them, but concentrate on one aspect of the word which has been a little lost over the centuries. Our starting point will be an innocuous little line from Romeo and Juliet:

PARIS Younger than she are happy mothers made.

Now, let us leave this line from Paris’ argument with the Capulet about his marriage chances, and head back two thousand years to Ancient Greece, and three goddesses called Thallo, Arxo, and Carpo. These three goddesses were collectively called the Horai, the plural of the word ‘Hora’, which is best translated by our English word, ‘Hour’. This should not be too surprising, given the resemblance between the Attic word and our own. What is important here, though, is not the word ‘hour’ but the word ‘happy’.

The Horai had many roles in the long and tangled course of Greek mythology, but they are consistently representative of times of life and of growth. From this, the ‘Horai’ become those goddesses who represent many things which make humans happy: Thallo means ‘one who brings blossoms’ (youth); Auxo, ‘one who brings increase’ (wealth); and Carpo, ‘one who brings food’. In the Greek tradition, happiness and timing are inextricably linked.

Skipping forward a few thousand years, and across a few thousand kilometres brings us to another example of the link between time and emotional state. In French, the word for ‘hour’, and occasionally ‘time’, is ‘heure’. Put that word next to the French for happiness, ‘bonheur’, or for ‘happy’, ‘heureux’, and the resemblance is obvious. Now, back to the debate between Lord Capulet and Paris:

CAPULET But saying o’er what I have said before:
My child is yet a stranger in the world,
She hath not seen the change of fourteen years;
Let two more summers wither in their pride
Ere we may think her ripe to be a bride.
PARIS Younger than she are happy mothers made.

It is a debate, of course, about both time and happiness. Capulet’s language looks back to the fertility roles of the original Hours/Horai with his use of “summer”, “ripe”, and even “wither”. Meanwhile, Paris’ reply picks up all these themes and the parental concerns behind them with the apparently simple “happy”. Juliet will, in Paris’ eyes, be both a contented mother and one made a mother at a good time.

Thus concludes our journey through Ancient Greek mythology, French happiness, parental concern, and juvenile eagerness. All to resurrect an ambiguity that is more common than one might think. After all, one notes a certain similarity between ‘happy’ and ‘happen’. To finish then, here is a small smorgasbord of such ambiguous moments where emotion and timing are inextricably linked:

Two Gentlemen of Verona

VALENTINE My lord, I will be thankful
To any happy messenger from thence…

Richard III

ANNE God give your graces both
A happy and a joyful time of day!

Henry VI pt.3

KING EDWARD The harder match’d, the greater victory;
My mind presageth happy gain and conquest.

Henry V

HENRY V And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered,
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.

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