Reflections on a New Year
(Scroll Down for LEX study opportunities this year, and a special offer)
The older I get, the more arbitrary and fabricated the New Year seems. Life rolls on, no seam at the end of the calendar year. The sucker punches and celebrations that end one year are still here in the next, still raw, still scary, still moving, still exhilarating.
This year I am compelled to look more closely at the words Happy New Year, to see what I can learn. These three words seem like they’d be old as the hills, but only new and year are attested in Old English. Happy doesn’t make its appearance until Middle English; even hap, its archaic predecessor, wasn’t attested before the 13th century. Of course, all the calendrical shenanigans that give us a New Year’s Day weren’t totally sorted out until the 18th century, so looking into Happy New Year is an unavoidably anachronistic pursuit.
Still and all, let’s have a look. We already have a good sense of what each of these words means in isolation, as well as their collective phrasal meaning. In terms of their structure, <new> and <year> are both free base elements, and <happy> is the base <hap> plus the suffix <-y>. Pretty straightforward stuff.
Etymologically speaking, happy is pretty boring. I can locate no English relatives other than those that share the same base element, <hap>, as represented in this matrix:
The denotation ‘chance’ explains a lot, at least to me, about what’s really going on in the wishes for a Happy New Year. Perhaps this year will be better than the last; that, however, can be haphazard. Each year brings its own set of mishaps and happenings alike, often with no respect for what’s on our calendar.
Now, the word new has, of course, a few morphological relatives, like news, newly, newspaper, renew, and anew. Its closest etymological relatives, as we might expect, are those built on the Latinate bound base <nove>, as in novel, novelty, renovate, innovate, and novice. Far more distant relatives include now and noon, both of which make deeper sense of new, don’t they? Really, now is always new, isn’t it?
And finally, year is a bit of a treasure trove. It’s related to yore (as I wrote about here), which derived from the genitive (possessive) plural of Old English gear, meaning ‘year’. That genitive history is the reason we really only use this word in the collocation of yore — that of does the job in the present day that the genitive inflection did a thousand years ago. Of course, we don’t speak of years of yore, but of days of yore, reminding us that time passes daily; it is comprised of pieces, some large, some small, all passing. After all, only now is new.
Other, more distant relatives of year tell a wider story. The word derives from an ancient Indo-European compound root that denotes ‘year, summer, or season;’ it’s the ‘season’ part that is compelling to me. From this same compound root we get both hour and horoscope — again, both marking time other than a year: seasons, short and long. If we pan back further and look at the first piece of the compound, we find the relatives January, perish, exit, ion, and many others, all deriving from an ancient root pertaining to ‘going.’ Only now is new, but the year keeps going.
What’s Going On with LEX this Year
For 2014, I have a few things on the books, and a few others that are brewing. So far, here are dates and locations I know about. If your school, organization, or community is interested in booking a seminar, please contact me on the LEX Educational Products page.
- March 1: Rethinking Phonology, keynote address at the Indiana Branch of the International Dyslexia Association, Indianapolis
- March 29-30: Etymology II with Douglas Harper of The Online Etymology Dictionary, Greater Philadelphia area
- April 26-27: Word Detectives with Peter Bowers of WordWorks, Greater San Diego area
- Summer 2014: TBD with Peter Bowers of WordWorks, Cincinnati
- Summer 2014: TBD at the Children’s Dyslexia Center of Bangor, Maine
In addition, I expect to be trying my hand at some Spellinars later this spring, online seminars for small groups that meet weekly for an hour or two for five or six weeks. First up? Old English for Real Spellers. Also expected: Where Spelling and Syntax Intersect. Please contact me if your group or school has a specific request for such study.
Finally, if you’ve read this far,
anyone ordering LEX Grapheme Decks by 11:59pm Central Standard Time on January 15th will get free shipping within the U.S., and 40% off shipping abroad.
Happy New Year!