or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Good Luck

First, you really ought to watch this.

(If that didn't work, you can watch it here.)

"It" is an eleven-minute video in which a very patient programmer exploits the formal properties of the Super Mario World universe--the physics, the sounds that every object and event makes--to turn a huge Super Mario level into the percussion section for a chirpy mix of music from anime cartoons. Every bonk of a turtle's shell, every sproingy bounce-block sound, every power-up and power-down is employed in the service of punctuating the song, and what's more, it gets more and more fanciful and elaborate as it goes on; the designer tops himself, and then tops himself again, over and over in ways you can hardly imagine.

There's nobody controlling it, by the way. It's a Rube Goldberg device, a huge array of dominoes standing on end, the biggest-ever game of The Incredible Machine. All the pieces are set up just so, the first element is set in motion, and everything that ensues is a consequence of the game's physics. (It reportedly took the creator six months, and I can believe it; the timing is breathtakingly precise.)

I can't even tell you how much happiness this silly thing has brought me. I've watched it four times since I discovered it yesterday (via Boingboing, of course), and I'll probably watch it again before the day is out.


On thinking about this, it occurred to me that I don't have the faintest idea where the word "happiness" might have come from. Not French: they use "bonheur", and "happy" is "heureux". The Germans use "Glück" and "glücklich". Italian "happy" is "felice", related to English "felicitations" ("congratulations"), and Spanish "feliz". I was out of ideas.

Rather than thinking that "happy" was a natural-born English word, I should have guessed that it's from Old Norse, I suppose. I didn't, but it is. Their "happ" meant not "happiness" but "luck" or "chance", and once you know that, a number of other words fall into place, don't they?

"Perhaps" means "by chance". (The archaic "mayhap" has the same meaning: its a contraction of "it may hap", which is to say "it may chance to be".) "To happen" means "to come about", originally by luck and now by any contrivance whatever. "Happenstance" preserves this original meaning of happening by luck or chance: the "-stance" at the end is abstracted from "circumstance". "Haphazard" means "occurring at random". ("Hazard" meaning "a danger" was preceded by the sense of "some random thing"--evidently the feeling was that a random occurrence was likely to be bad--and this in turn came from the Middle English "hasard", a dice game.)

And "happy" originally meant "lucky", and now means the emotional state that the lucky person is most likely to be in.


The story is told of French president Charles de Gaulle and his wife at a retirement dinner in America: when asked what she was most looking forward to, Madame de Gaulle said, "A penis." A long uncomfortable silence ensued before Monsieur le Président said, "My dear, I believe that word is pronounced 'appiness'."

It is, of course, too good to be true: Snopes gives it a mild but insistent debunking. It is, however, the perfect illustration of the centrality of stress patterns to the English language, and of the difficulty many foreign speakers have in mastering this difficult and seemingly random element of the tongue.


Blogger Frank said...

"Glueck" and "glueclich" are also German for "luck," too, so it seems to be a general Germanic formulation.

Thursday, May 29, 2008 10:48:00 PM  

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