God rest you merry, gentlemen,
Let nothing you dismay
Traditional English Christmas carol
The three words I’m going to write about in this post are pretty much inextricably linked with Christmas, but all of them started off meaning something different from their current usage.
merry: cheerful and lively; characterized by festivity and enjoyment
This word started out in Proto-Indo-European sounding something like mreghu-, and meaning something like “short”. (That original meaning is preserved in its descendants brief and breve, among many others.) How it evolved into a word that meant “pleasant” in Old English is a bit of a puzzle, but it’s suggested that there was a verb involved, meaning “to shorten” and then “to make time pass quickly”—and something that made the time pass quickly was pleasant. The same PIE root also gives us mirth, presumably by the same etymological route.
The sense “pleasant” was around for a long time, and has left a confusing legacy for speakers of modern English, more used to the festive senses of merry. Merry England was simply pleasant, rather than noted for its liveliness. A person could be described as merry if they were in good spirits and feeling well:
Julius Caesar Act 2, Scene 4
PORTIA: Run, Lucius, and commend me to my lord;
Say I am merry: come to me again,
And bring me word what he doth say to thee.
And that’s the sense in which merry appears in the Christmas carol at the head of this post—”God rest you merry” means “may God keep you in good health”. That’s why a comma is correctly positioned just before “gentlemen”, who (in more sexist days) were the people to whom this wish was addressed.
The weather was merry if it was pleasant, and a wind was merry if it blew in a favourable direction:
The Comedy Of Errors Act 4, Scene 1
DROMIO OF SYRACUSE: The ship is in her trim; the merry wind
Blows fair from land: they stay for nought at all
But for their owner, master, and yourself.
And a merry man or merryman was the companion in arms of a knight or chief. Robin Hood’s merry men were good people to have around, not necessarily riotous in their good humour.
But by Shakespeare’s time the meaning of merry was shifting. He was able to use it in its old sense of “pleasant”, as illustrated above, but could also deploy it with something like its modern meaning, as when Ophelia frostily describes Hamlet as being “merry” when he indulges in a tedious double entendre at her expense. Sixty years later, Charles II was called the Merry Monarch, in part because people thought it was pleasant to have a king again after the excesses of Cromwell’s government, and in part because of the lively nature of the court he kept.
Soon after that, we find merry-andrew used to designate a clown or buffoon (though no-one is sure who the original Andrew was), and the modern meaning is firmly in place.
A merrythought is an old and lovely name for the “wishbone” of a bird. A merry-go-round is a pretty boring fairground ride, but it dates from after the transition of merry to imply “cheerful and lively”, so people were obviously short of fun in those days. A merry-totter is an old name for a see-saw, and merry-go-down is obsolete slang for strong ale. Sadly, the name of the Merrydown vintage cider company seems to be unconnected—named instead after the house of one of the original owners. But the association with alcoholic beverages brings us to one final meaning for merry—as the OED coyly puts it, “hilarious with drink”.
jolly: happy and cheerful
Jolly came into Middle English from Old French, in the form of jolif. The final “f” was lost in both languages, and French joli preserves one of the word’s original meanings: “pretty”. The OED lists a multitude of other meanings for jolif, including “brave”, “amorous”, “finely dressed”, “gallant”, “festive” and “lively”—apparently a list of desirable attributes for the young and healthy.
So we see jolly used to imply lively spirits and good health. From there it was but a short step to using it for anyone who was in a party mood, and from that it became a euphemism for “drunk”, a meaning it had acquired by the seventeenth century. And it became fashionable to refer to Bacchus, the Roman god of wine, as the jolly god.
Full jolly knight he seemed, and fair did sit,
As one for knightly jousts and fierce encounters fit.
And that’s probably the sense in which it was used for the pirate flag, the Jolly Roger. (The “Roger” perhaps comes from a common nickname for the Devil at the time—Old Roger.)
Another strand relates to connotations of amorousness and lustfulness, and it’s in that sense that Shakespeare uses the word here:
Richard III Act 4, Scene 3
KING RICHARD III: Now, for I know the Breton Richmond aims
At young Elizabeth, my brother’s daughter,
And, by that knot, looks proudly o’er the crown,
To her I go, a jolly thriving wooer.
But in Shakespeare’s time all those youthful and (in the main) positive associations led to jolly becoming a sort of non-specific sound of approval, much as nice has become in the present day. And that also allowed it be used as an intensifier:
The Taming Of The Shrew Act 3, Scene 2
KATHARINA: For me, I’ll not be gone till I please myself:
‘Tis like you’ll prove a jolly surly groom,
That take it on you at the first so roundly.
Good health, bravery and lust gradually fell by the wayside during the seventeenth century, and jolly eventually settled down to its present connotation of lively good cheer with a possible side-order of inebriation. Its use as an intensifier can still be heard, but the days of Wodehousian ejaculations like, “Jolly good show, old chap!” are sadly long gone.
happy: feeling or showing pleasure or contentment
Happy was originally the adjective derived from Middle English hap, which meant “chance” or “fortune”, either good or bad. So an event was happy if it occurred by chance. But both these meanings soon shifted to concentrate on good things—hap was good fortune, and happy designated the results of good fortune.
Although hap is no longer used, it has left a list of derived words. The verb to happen originally implied “to occur by chance”. A mishap is a piece of bad luck, and someone who is hapless is luckless. Something haphazard is exposed to the hazards of chance. And a happenstance is a circumstance that happens by chance—it’s occasionally rendered as happenchance, just to make that clear. Happen-so is another word for the same thing.
We still occasionally talk about events as being happy if they are favoured by good luck—a “happy coincidence”, for instance—but we’ve largely moved on to thinking of happy as being the state of mind induced by good fortune.
For Shakespeare, though, a person was described as happy if they were blessed by good luck, even if that good luck was unlikely to be giving them much joy at the time:
Henry V Act 4, Scene 3
KING HENRY V: We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition:
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.
The St Crispin’s Day speech is stirring stuff, but it seems unlikely that any of Henry’s listeners were “feeling or showing pleasure or contentment” at the time, especially when he got to the “sheds his blood” bit—this was grim good fortune that could only be savoured by the survivors.
Finally (wouldn’t you know it), pretty much as soon as happy became associated with a state of pleasure and contentment, it became associated with alcoholic drink—by the eighteenth century, happy had joined merry and jolly as a euphemism for drunkenness.
If you’re disposed to celebrate Christmas, I wish you a merry, jolly, happy one, in the modern senses of those words; the involvement of alcohol is entirely up to you.