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shameless pleading





Pursuit of happiness

Bad news, dude. We’ve settled for Happy Hour.

[Note: this column was written in January, 2012 (when subscribers read it).]

Dear Word Detective:  Rick Santorum is telling us that, in the days of the Founding Fathers, “happiness” meant living in accordance with moral principles, rather than the current meaning of a state of emotional well-being. I am skeptical; how about you? — Harold Russell.

Land O’ Goshen, are you people having another election? Laws, talk about slow learners. I warned you last time that no good would come of such foolishness. The whole ruckus is just a magnet for mountebanks and charlatans, a giant national dinner bell for every grifter and con artist north, south, east and west of the Pecos, wherever the heck the Pecos are. And then y’all always come crying, “He broke his promises!” Well of course he did. He has you in his pocket, and now he wants to hang out with all those other people you thought he didn’t like. Did everybody around here sleep through junior high school? Wasn’t this the plot of ten zillion ABC Afterschool Specials?

Anyway, thanks for an interesting question. I also like this question because it proves to me that my resolution of a few months ago to stop listening to any of these clowns is working, because I had no idea Mister … Santorum (which one is he again?) said any such thing. But the Google says he did, and the Google never lies. Maybe I should vote for the Google. It’s a corporation, and thus a person, so why not?

Onward. Apparently Rick Santorum, former US Senator from Pennsylvania and current presidential candidate, was addressing some college students in New Hampshire the other day, in the course of which, according to, “Santorum explained that when the Declaration of Independence promised life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, it did not mean happiness as we know it today. ‘Happiness is not enjoyment or pleasure,’ Santorum said. ‘Happiness means to do the right thing — to do not what we want to do, but what we ought to do.'” He reportedly also noted that “America is not a melting pot. It’s a salad bowl.” Oh goody. Wake me when it’s over.

The relevant text of the Declaration of Independence is “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” The noun “happiness” means, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, “The quality or condition of being happy.” The adjective “happy” first appeared in the 14th century with the meaning “lucky; fortunate,” which made sense because “happy” was based on the noun “hap” (from the Old Norse “happ”), meaning “luck” or “good fortune.” Other descendants of “hap” include “happen” (originally meaning “to occur by chance” rather than, as now, simply “to occur”) and “hapless,” meaning “unlucky.” In modern use, “happy” is most often used to mean “having a great feeling of pleasure or contentedness.”

So the question posed by Senator Santorum’s “clarification” is whether the noun “happiness,” back around 1776, meant something other than the state of being happy, content, satisfied with one’s lot, etc. Thanks to the tireless folks at the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), we have a pretty complete record of how “happiness” has been used since it first appeared in the early 16th century.

There have, indeed, been various shades of meaning attached to “happiness” over the years. From the earliest “Good fortune or luck in life or in a particular affair; success, prosperity” (OED) came, in the 1590s, “The state of pleasurable content of mind, which results from success or the attainment of what is considered good” (OED). The only other major sense to develop was around 1600, when Shakespeare introduced the use of “happiness” meaning “Successful or felicitous aptitude, fitness, suitability, or appropriateness” (OED) (“Claudio: He is a very proper man. Prince: He hath indeed a good outward happiness …,” Much Ado about Nothing).

I suppose that one could attempt to stretch “The state of pleasurable content of mind, which results from success or the attainment of what is considered good” to fit the former Senator’s definition (“Happiness means to do the right thing — to do not what we want to do, but what we ought to do”), but it really won’t work. It’s pretty clear that the Founders intended “the pursuit of happiness” to mean “a fair shot at success, enjoyment of life and contentment” not “the chance to do what is right.” People should do the right thing, of course, but Mr. Santorum should argue that point on its own merits, not by mangling history.

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