Are you feeling a little hazy after 4/20? Maybe from some purple haze? No, no, I’m sure you were just listening to the Jimi Hendrix song. Well, you’re not alone, as the etymology of hazy is itself quite hazy.
The first recorded evidence of hazy goes back to the late 1500s and early 1600s. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) attests it in 1625, Ernest Weekley in 1592, and Merriam-Webster back in 1582. Early on, hazy (written in such forms as hawsey or heysey) appeared in nautical contexts, used by seamen to describe “misty” or “foggy” weather.
Hazy shifted in the 1800s. Weather-wise, it started describing heat-related obscurations in the atmosphere. It was also extended as a metaphor, characterizing drink-related confusion by the 1820s and thing like memories or ideas as “vague” or “indistinct” by the 1830s.
We would expect hazy to be the adjective form of the noun haze, (cf. crazy < crazy), but the OED doesn’t find haze until 1706, making haze a probable back-formation of hazy. This also happens with sleaze and laze: Sleazy and lazy are recorded first. The verb haze, as in recruits and initiates, is unrelated; it might go back to a French verb, haser, “to irritate.”
So, where does hazy come from? One theory is that hazy is somehow related to the Old English hasu, meaning “gray.” Philologist Walter Skeat notes this adjective was used of the color of wolves and eagles, and further observes that hazy was found in northern parts of England, making it a possible Scandinavian loanword. For this, he cites the Icelandic höss, “gray” or “dusky,” which he considers a cognate to hasu. The record poses some challenges to this theory, however.
The word hazy has been identified with another gray animal. A more fanciful theory connects hazy to the German Hase, a “hare.” The thinking here isn’t about color but old German idioms and sailors’ superstitions. In his entry for the word brauen (“to brew”) in his landmark late 18th-century German dictionary, Grammatisch-kritisches Wörterbuch der hochdeutschen Mundart, German lexicographer Johann Christoph Adelung notes a curious Low Saxon idiom: der Hase brauet, used to say “the weather is hazy.” It literally means, though, “the hare is brewing,” as if a ground-level mist were the vapors rising up from some rabbit brewing a a concoction underground.
Hares also feature in nautical superstitions, not to mention folklore (cf. Easter Bunny, beliefs that witches disguised themselves as hares, lucky rabbit’s foot, and so forth). For instance, some sailors historically claimed it was taboo to say the word hare on ship, among other animal names, and that it was bad luck if they spotted a hare when their way to board their vessel. Were hazy conditions at sea seen as ominous like a hare? The relationship is, well, hazy.