the emotions, part i (happy & sad)

Fast Mash

  • Happy originally meant “lucky,” from hap (fortune, fate, chance, luck). This hap goes back to the Proto-Indo-European *kob (fit, suit). The meaning shifts towards “contentment” around the 15th century. 
  • Sad comes from the Old English sæd, meaning “full,” in the sense of having one’s fill. Sated is cognate, from the Latin satis (enough), as in “satisfy.” Feelings of fullness gave way to a tiredness and heaviness that became associated with what we now refer to as sadness. 

How are you feeling today?

Illustrated by Jim Borgman, a Cincinnatian, this proud transplant will have you note.

All across the nation, this poster is fading on the sides of bulky filing cabinets that squat in the offices of high school counselors. If we heed recent research, though, we might want to restrict our menu.

As The Atlantic reports, some scientists hypothesize that, on the most basic level, there are four core emotions: happy, sad, afraid/surprised, and angry/disgusted. Their findings collapse the long-running, conventional distinction between afraid and surprised as well as angry and disgusted.

Psychologists, philosophers, and scientists will no doubt continue putting the nature, number, and nativity of emotions on the proverbial couch. But, speaking of origins, what does etymology have to say on the matter?

Let’s get to the bottom of happy and sad.


Happy joins hap and the adjective suffix –y, which denotes ‘having the character of,’ ‘inclined to,’ or ‘consisting of,’ as the ODEE glosses this productive sound.

Early on, happy meant “lucky,” for hap conveyed “chance,” “fortune,” “luck,” and “fate.” Attested in 1200, hap hails from Old Norse happ, which comes from the Proto-Germanic *khapan, in turn from the Proto-Indo-European *kob. This root, meaning “suit,” “fit,” or “succeed,” has cognates in the Old Church Slavonic kobu (fate) and the Czech koba (consequence). Old Enligh’s gehæp kept this ancient sense, signifying “convenient.”

The OED attests happy in the sense of “contentment” in 1477. But the meaning is still “getting lucky,” if you will, in happilyhaplessmishap, happy accident, and happy-go-lucky. And, of course, happen, well, happens.  


Mick Jagger was right on the money when he sang, “I can’t get no satisfaction.” Sad comes down to us from the Old English sæd, which meant “sated”–as in “full”–and indeed is related to the word “sated.” Via Proto-Germanic *sathaz and Proto-Indo-European *seto-, sad ultimately goes back to the root *sa-, “satisfy.” This root gave Latin the same, satis, yielding everything from “satisfy” to “satiate” to “saturate.” 

But how do you go from gluttony to grief?  Sad‘s sense of fullness became a metaphor for “tired” and “grieved” (Skeat) through the centuries, as well as for “steadfast,” “serious,” and “solid” (ODEE). To these, Weekley adds “settled,” “orderly,” and “sober.” Associations of “fullness” to “darkness” likely gave additional fuel to the shift as well. Today’s principal reference to grief is attested in the 14th century.

Cause and Effect 

How do we conceive of happiness today? Do we consider what befalls us luck? Or do we like to think that we have more agency in our happiness, the result of hard work and effort, of rolled-up sleeves and elbow grease? Perhaps its sadness we are more apt to attribute to fate: Not getting the job or the boy/girl was “simply not meant to be,” or how terrible tragedies that defy even our most basic understandings of reason, sense, purpose, and causality.

Next post, we’ll get in touch with more of our feelings: afraid, surprisedangry, and disgusted.

m ∫ r ∫


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