Monday, March 12, 2018

Happy Lent

Every now and then in signing off on an email, one Catholic to another, I have to restrain myself from employing the phrase “Happy Lent!” as a complimentary close.  “Happy Easter” most people understand; but the idea of Lent as “happy” sounds off, at least in modern English.  Since most people would take it as sarcasm, I usually refrain.  But really, Lent is happy.

Mind you, I am not an utter barbarian: I would no more wish anyone a “Merry Lent” than I would express hope for their “merry death.”  That’s not just because “Merry Christmas” has different associations than the more solemn “Happy Easter.”  It’s because “merry” and “happy” actually have different connotations, even different meanings once word detection scrapes beneath the surface.  The first sense that the OED gives for “merry” is “That causes pleasure,” and most of the derivative senses of the word involve “pleasant” or “pleasing.”  The second major sense of “merry” is “Characterized by happiness or joy”—which makes sense, since “happy” and “merry” are sometimes treated as synonyms. 

Similarly, the secondary senses of “happy” “relat[e] to pleasing appropriateness or aptness” (italics added).  But the first senses of “happy” are those “related to good fortune.”  It is under this sense that the Beatitudes are sometimes translated with the word “happy,” even though that leads to some rather curious and (ahem) infelicitous combinations, e.g., “Happy are they that mourn.”  (Or, in the Old Testament, “Happy the man whom God chastises.”)  It is probably better on the whole, modern English being what it is, that “blessed” has been almost universally adopted instead; like “consubstantial,” it has the advantage of being a word that we all know we don’t quite understand, and thus cuts down on more serious misunderstanding.

But etymologically “happy” does suggest what the word “blessed” also aims to convey: the idea that one is fortunate.  It comes from the same root hap that yielded “happen” and “happenstance.”  Originally, all three were relatively neutral words relating to luck, lot, or chance.  But somewhere along the way some bright people (who were almost certainly Christian, and might recently have been discussing Romans 8:28) got the notion that, Providence being what it was, every hap that happened to a man was ultimately for his good.  So “happy” came to mean not merely “eventful” or “having stuff happen” but specifically “having good stuff happen, fortunate.”

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