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shameless pleading

Happy-go-lucky

OK, let a smile be your umbrella. I’ll be in the cellar.

Dear Word Detective: I recently read the phrase “happy-go-lucky.” I was wondering if you could tell us the roots and what it means. — Emily Colby.

I’ll give it a shot, even though the prospect fills me with anxiety. Then again, almost everything fills me with anxiety, because I am definitely not a “happy-go-lucky” guy. Even just sitting here at my desk in my second-floor office, I can’t stop thinking about the fact that I’m suspended in mid-air by wooden beams put in place when Lincoln was president. I’d go for a drive, but I worry about the wheels falling off the car. (That actually happened to a guy I know. On the New Jersey Turnpike, no less.) So I’ll just sit here quietly and try not to think about killer asteroids.

“Happy-go-lucky” is an adverb, an adjective and a noun, although the noun is rarely used today. A person who is described as “happy-go-lucky” is a generally carefree, laid-back and relaxed soul, taking life as it comes, gazing on the world through¬† a rosy pink Panglossian haze and blithely unconcerned about the inevitable heart-rending horrors the future holds. The happy-go-lucky person’s motto is “Everything will work out and we’ll all be fine,” an attitude often resulting from seeing way too many Disney movies as a child.

Decoding the phrase “happy-go-lucky” seems, at first glance, easy. Here comes a simple-minded chap, skipping happily along on life’s journey, trusting that he’ll be lucky. And that is, in fact, the current sense of the term “happy-go-lucky.” But when the phrase first appeared in print in 1672, it meant simply “as luck will have it,” “whatever happens” or “haphazard,” not implying either a happy disposition or a lucky ending (“You have your twenty guineas in your pocket for helping me into my service; and, if I get into Mrs. Martha’s quarters, you have a hundred more — if into the widow’s, fifty: — happy go lucky!”). “Happy go lucky” amounted to “que sera, sera,” “whatever will be will be.”

The reason for the difference in meaning is the change in the meaning of “happy.” The root of “happy” is “hap,” an archaic English word (from the Old Norse “happ”) meaning “chance, fortune, luck,” whether good or bad. This “hap” also gave us “happen” and “happenstance,” so the sense of an essentially random occurrence was hard-coded into “happy,” and when “happy” appeared in English in the 16th century, it meant simply “happening by chance.” This is the original meaning of the “happy” in “happy-go-lucky,” making the phrase mean essentially¬† “haphazard; depending on chance and luck.”

Fairly soon, however, “happy” went from meaning simply “by fortune or chance” to “by good fortune,” i.e., “fortunate, lucky, prosperous and favorable.” This is the sense of “happy” used in older phrases such as “happy day” (a wedding) or “happy event” (the birth of a child). The people present aren’t necessarily giggling with joy, but these are, nonetheless, very positive occasions. By the early 16th century, “happy” had followed its natural evolution (people who are fortunate tend to be cheerful, after all), and had arrived at its modern meaning of “feeling great contentment and emotional pleasure,” or simply “glad or pleased.”

The phrase “happy-go-lucky,” however, didn’t get the memo and went on meaning “haphazard” up until the early 19th century (“Messrs. Hubbards resisted [the action] on the plea of having sold him ‘happy go lucky’ (meaning the purchaser was to take him with all faults, for better for worse.)” 1802). But by the mid-1800s, under the influence of the new, cheerier sense of “happy,” “happy-go-lucky” as an adjective developed its modern sense of “carefree, easy-going” in reference to a person’s personality or behavior (“The first thing was to make Carter think and talk, which he did in the happy-go-lucky way of his class,” 1856).

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