The Etymology of Happiness, and Some Related Words

Michael Taber
St. Maryís College of Maryland

There arrives a point in some philosophical discussions about happiness at which the question arises of the adequacy of the terms we use in our discussions. One sees the issue arise, for example, in discussing the following:

  • whether happiness can be a static state of grinning
  • whether happiness is something we create or something that can happen to us
  • whether there is a difference between feeling that oneself is happy and being happy
  • what the relation is between happiness and moral goodness or between happiness and a meaningful life.

Compare some of these (at least) closely related traits:

  1. Pat is happy.
  2. Pat is satisfied
  3. Patís life is perfected.
  4. Patís life is completed or Pat is fulfilled.
  5. Pat is successful.
  6. Pat is fortunate.
  7. Pat is contented.
  8. Patís life is enjoyable.
  9. Pat is actualized.
  10. Pat is flourishing.



This is from the Middle English hap meaning "chance" or "good luck." We can see the remnants of this in our words perhaps and happenstance. This origin makes the common usage of happiness odd, for although what we usually mean by the word has some element of chance in it, we rarely mean something that is exclusively a matter of happenstance.


This comes from the same Indo-European root that gives us "sad." At first this may seem a curiosity fated to remain inexplicable. After all, what could be more opposed than being satisfied and being sad?

A closer look, however, provides not only a sensible historical explanation, but points to a philosophically significant aspect of satisfaction. In Middle English, "sad" means "sated, tired, satisfied" (Partridge, p. 580). When one is sated, like after a good meal, one is subdued, even tired. "Satisfaction" is literally "making (in Latin, facere) sated."

Philosophically, isnít there something saddening about satisfaction? To be at rest after a pursuit is to not be in pursuit anymore. The loss of engagement constituted by the loss of the pursuit can be saddening.


From per and facere, meaning "to make or do throughout or thoroughly."

Completion and fulfillment

These words share an Indo-European root: ple- (meaning "to fill") and its synonymous variant pel-. This variant gives us "fill," and hence "fulfillment."

Words for "to fill" are plethein in Greek and plere in Latin. The com- prefix in Latin is an intensifier, and so complere in Latin means "to fill up."


This word is from the Latin succedere, meaning "to go under" (and hence later "to follow"). This itself is from sub ("under") and cedere ("to go").

Perhaps oddly then, "success" is tied to being a follower. We can see this explicitly in such uses as "successive odd integers" and "the successor to the throne." Ayto says (p. 509) that the Latin sense of getting near to something evolved in Latin into indicating prospering, though he provides no mechanism for how this would have evolved.


The Latin base is fors, perhaps akin to the Latin ferre, and so meaning "that which life bears or brings." Hence, "being fortunate" in its original meaning is the Latin version of the Anglo-Saxon "being happy."


This is from the Latin flor, meaning "flower." Latin florere means "to grow like a flower" or "to flourish." The emphasis of this word is on development and movement.


This is from the Latin actus, meaning "to drive, to do." In its emphasis on activity, this is very different from "happiness" and "fortunateness."


From the Latin continere, meaning "to hold (tenere) together (con-)," which is also the root for such words as "container" and "continence." The Latin contentus means a quiet satisfaction.

So to be contented means, literally, to be holding together. There is the etymological suggestion, therefore, of contentment being a static state.


From the Latin gaudium, meaning "joy." The prefix "en-" is an intensifier added in the Old French. Interestingly, our derisive term "gaudy" comes from the same root. In obsolete English, "gaud" meant "a jest," and later came to mean "a trinket."


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