Grammatical and semantic features
of the word denoting happiness 'happy'

by Nguyen Thi Van Lam, TIL (Tun Institute of Learning, Yangon, Myanmar), May 2004

Happiness is a popular daily topic and may be expressed in different ways of which no less important than others is utilizing linguistics items. In English, there are a lot of words and idioms denoting happiness which draw the author's attention. In this article, she discusses the most widely used English word denoting happiness - 'happy' in terms of grammar first and semantics later. Its grammatical features include syntactic functions and morphological features, and the semantics includes lexical meaning, synonyms, antonyms, collocations and idioms of which ‘happy’ is a component. Some suggestions in teaching and learning the word are finally provided in the article.


Grammatical Features of 'Happy'
Syntactic Functions
Morphological Features
Semantics of 'Happy'
Feeling or Showing Pleasure and Contentment
Causing or Giving Pleasure and Contentment
Full of Joy
Fortunate, Lucky
Suitable, Appropriate
Words Formed from 'Happy'
Semantics of the Idioms with 'Happy'
Pure Idioms
Literal Idioms

TIL: This is the first article on the English word "Happy". Please see the next article: "Grammatical and semantic features of some adjectives denoting happiness.

TIL note: This article was submitted to TIL in a format not suitable for web-publication, and was subsequently reformatted in HTML. The reader should beware that during the reformatting process, errors could have crept in for which TIL is responsibile.


1 Introduction

The English language abounds in the expressions of emotion, especially happiness. The state of happiness can be expressed by such linguistics items as ‘happy’, ‘cheerful’, ‘gay’, ‘glad’, ‘merry’, ‘pleased’, ‘delighted’, ‘elated’, and ‘jubilant’ (adjectives); ‘bliss’, ‘ecstasy’, ‘euphoria’, ‘glee’, ‘joy’ and ‘rapture’ (nouns); ‘exult’ and 'rejoice' (verbs); and ‘walk on air’, ‘in seventh heaven’, ‘on cloud nine’, ‘on top of the world’, ‘over the moon’ and ‘thrilled to bits’ (idioms). Of all these linguistic items, ‘happy’ is the most widely used. In this article, we shall first deal with the interesting points of ‘happy’ in terms of the grammatical features including syntactic functions and morphological features, and the semantics including lexical meaning, synonyms, antonyms, collocations and idioms of which ‘happy’ is a component.


2 Grammatical Features of ‘Happy’

2.1 Syntactic Functions

‘Happy’ is a typical adjective, sharing the following syntactic functions of adjectives:

(a) the head of an adjectival phrase, pre-modified by such intensifiers of degree as ‘very’, ‘so’, ‘so very’, ‘more than’, ‘extremely’, ‘too’, etc., e.g. ‘very happy’, ‘more than happy’ (happy to a degree that is not adequately expressed by the word ‘happy’), and other adverbs such as ‘reasonably’, ‘completely’, ‘perfectly’, etc. as in:

My early childhood was extremely happy.

or post-modified by the intensifier ‘enough’, e.g. ‘happy enough’;

(b) attributive as pre-modifier in a noun phrase, e.g. ‘a happy man’;

(c) predicative as subject complement with such verbs as ‘appear’, ‘be’,  ‘become’, ‘feel’, ‘look’, ‘seem’ and ‘grow’,  as in:

His brother grew happier gradually;

or object complement, exemplified by:

You will make me happy.

When ‘happy’ plays the predicative function, it can take complementation types of prepositional phrases with ‘about’, ‘in’, and ‘with’, that-clauses, and to-infinitive post-modification, e.g.:

He is happy about his exam results;

I was happy that he had come;

I am happy to be of service.

Also, for all these functions, it allows comparison structures of:


He is as happy a teacher as my father;


I am not as/so happy as he is.


You will make me happier than I can tell you.


Now began the happiest time of my life.


2.2 Morphological Features

The lexeme ‘happy’ consists of one morpheme as a root. It has two inflected word-forms: happier (comparative) and happiest (superlative) by means of inflection; and five derivatives ‘happiness’ (n), ‘happily’ (adv), ‘unhappy’ (adj), ‘unhappiness’ (n) and ‘unhappily’ (adv) by means of derivation; and such compounds as ‘happy event’(n), ‘happy hour’ (n), ‘happy medium’ (n), ‘happy-go-lucky’ (adj), ‘slap-happy’ (adj), ‘trigger-happy’ (adj) by means of compounding. ‘Happy event’ consists of two roots happy and event; ‘happy hour’ two roots happy and hour; ‘happy medium’ two roots happy and medium; ‘happy-go-lucky’ three roots happy, go, luck and a suffix -y; ‘slap-happy’ two roots slap and happy; and ‘trigger-happy’ also two roots trigger and happy. ‘Happy’ can also combine with such nouns as ‘money’, ‘clothes’ and ‘bomb’ to form the compounds: ‘money-happy’, ‘clothes-happy’ and ‘bomb-happy’.



3 Semantics of ‘Happy’

In this section, different senses of ‘happy’ will be discussed in turn together with the synonyms, antonyms and collocations for each sense.

‘Happy’ is a polysemous word, having at least six senses:
   (a) Feeling or showing pleasure and contentment
   (b) Causing or giving pleasure and contentment
   (c) Full of joy
   (d) Fortunate, lucky
   (e) Suitable, appropriate
   (f) Willing


3.1 Feeling or Showing Pleasure and Contentment

‘Happy’, in this sense, denotes an emotion of positive pleasure that human beings feel. It is a neutral, generic and all-inclusive term, and we use it to describe the feeling of pleasure in all circumstances: life, marriage, work, social relationships, etc.. People have this feeling of pleasure when something good has happened, for example:

My mother was happy about my exam results.

‘Happy’ is frequently used, informally, formally and in literature. In this sense of feeling of pleasure, it is descriptively synonymous with  ‘glad’, ‘pleased’, ‘delighted’, ‘ecstatic’, ‘elated’, and ‘overjoyed’, whereas it is antonymous with ‘sad’ – “negative feeling of pleasure” and its derivative ‘unhappy’.

As ‘happy’ denotes the feeling of pleasure of human beings, it can collocate with nouns denoting various classes of people, e.g. ‘child’, ‘doctor’, ‘teacher’, etc.

It can occur with different prepositional phrases with ‘about’, ‘in’, ‘with’ and ‘for’, e.g.:

I am so happy for you. I know how much you wanted the job.

Apart from the meaning of ‘happy’ – feeling of pleasure, ‘happy’ can be used to describe people who feel pleasure most of the time. ‘Happy’ applies to a pleasurable feeling of contentment, as from a sense of fulfillment. In this meaning, it is near-synonymous with ‘cheerful’, which suggests the good spirits characteristic of a person who is pleased with something or who has a naturally outgoing nature.

‘Happy’ collocates with nouns denoting classes of human beings and even with ‘disposition’, as in:

Marcia is a lovely girl with a happy / cheerful disposition.

The first sense of ‘happy’ is commonly used not only in daily life but in literary works as well; and also not only a long time ago but at present as well.


3.2 Causing or Giving Pleasure and Contentment

The second sense of ‘happy’ is used as much as the first sense and describes an occasion, a situation, or a period of time when someone feels happy. ‘Happy’ here is a near-synonym of the adjective ‘blissful’. ‘Blissful’ is used for an occasion, a situation, or a period of time when someone feels extremely happy and not worried by anything as in:

(32) They are a young couple in the first blissful days of their marriage.

‘Happy’ can occur with ‘childhood’, ‘life’, ‘marriage’, ‘days’, ‘age’, etc.


3.3 Full of Joy

‘Happy’ is used in greetings or wishes, meaning “full of joy”, and functioning as pre-modifier of noun phrases only, as in:

(35)     Happy New Year!

(36)     Happy Birthday!

(37)     Have a happy day!

(38)     Happy Christmas!

In the last example, ‘happy’ and ‘merry’ are near-synonyms. ‘Merry’ can substitute for ‘happy’ in the similar meaning, but it cannot in the first two examples.

‘Merry’ conveys the idea of festivities. We say ‘Merry Christmas’ because Christmas is a feast -- a festival whereas when we say ‘Happy New Year’, we are wishing the new year to be a happy and prosperous year. ‘Merry’ has a very restricted collocational range. ‘Happy’, by contrast, has a much broader collocational range: it collocates with any word denoting events or occasions to form greetings or wishes such as New Year / Christmas / Anniversary / Wedding Party, etc.

 ‘Happy’ can also collocate with ‘days’ and ‘landings’ to form good wishes. ‘Happy days!’ is an expression wishing somebody well, e.g. in a toast while ‘Happy landings!’ is a good wish for a journey, but it is now very dated.


3.4 Fortunate, Lucky

‘Happy’ here, functioning as pre-modifier of noun phrases only, has such descriptive synonyms as ‘fortunate’ (a formal word), and ‘lucky’ (an informal one). The central meaning shared by these adjectives is “attended by luck or good fortune”: ‘a happy outcome’; ‘a fortunate omen’; and ‘a lucky guess’ as in:

He is in the happy position of never having to worry about money.

Its antonym is ‘unhappy’ meaning “not attended by or bringing good fortune; unlucky”.


3.5 Suitable, Appropriate

‘Happy’, in this sense, functioning as pre-modifier of noun phrases only, is a formal word, descriptively synonymous with ‘suitable’ – a neutral word and ‘appropriate’ – a formal word. It is antonymous with ‘unhappy’, which means “not suitable, inappropriate”: ‘a happy / an unhappy choice of words’. Other examples of collocations of ‘happy’ are with ‘combination’ as in ‘a happy combination of colours’, ‘a happy combination of food and wine’, with ‘coincidence’ as in ‘(by) a happy coincidence’, with ‘thought’ in ‘a happy thought’, and with ‘idea’ in ‘a happy idea’.


3.6 Willing

‘Happy’ in this sense is also a formal word, denoting the property of willingness to do something. It is synonymous with ‘willing’ in terms of descriptive meaning, but ‘willing’ is a neutral word. Other synonyms of ‘happy’ in this sense are ‘pleased’ and ‘glad’, which are formal words, too, used to express the willingness. ‘Happy’ in this sense can function as subject complement taking the complementation type of to-infinitive post-modification but cannot take comparison structures:

 I am happy / pleased / glad to help you.


4 Words Formed from ‘Happy’

The non-count noun ‘happiness’ is generic, applied to almost every kind of enjoyment. It can function as head of noun phrases and clause constituents: subject, object and complement, pre-modified by ‘great’, much’, ‘so much’, ‘almost too much’, ‘true’, ‘perfect’, ‘lasting’, etc., e.g.:

It was almost too much happiness to bear.

‘Happiness’ can be post-modified by prepositional phrases with ‘of’, e.g. ‘the happiness of life / human race, etc.’. It is used a lot in literary works with a wide collocational range: ‘the secret / a lifetime / a gleam / etc. of happiness’; ‘to obtain / produce / consume / share / shed happiness’; ‘the sum happiness of human’, etc.. ‘Happiness’ can combine with other nouns denoting happiness to form interesting parallelism as in:

Although the happiness and delight of my life lie buried there too, I have not made a coffin of my heart,…

The adverb of ‘happy’ – ‘happily’ has three senses related to the senses (a), (e), and (f) of ‘happy’:
  (a) in a happy way
  (b) fortunately, luckily
  (c) appropriately, in an appropriate manner

The derivative ‘unhappy’ as an adjective, with its noun ‘unhappiness’ and its adverb ‘unhappily’, is an antonym of ‘happy’ in three senses of (1), (5), and (6). The senses of ‘unhappy’ are:
  (a) sad, not happy
  (b) unfortunate, unlucky
  (c) not suitable or appropriate

‘Happy event’ (n) is used in British English to denote the birth of a child. ‘Happy hour’ (n) is informally used especially in the United States to denote a period of time, usually in late afternoon and early evening, during which a bar or lounge features drinks at reduced prices. This noun does not accept the change in number of ‘hour’. ‘Happy medium’ (n) means “a proper balance between too much and too little of something, between two extremes or two qualities either of which would be undesirable in excess”. This noun does not accept the change in number of ‘medium’ and it can collocate with such verbs as ‘attain’ / ‘achieve’ / ‘be’ / ‘find’ / ‘seek’ / ‘strike’ / ‘hit’ and ‘provide’.

 ‘Happy-go-lucky’ (adj) means “not planning or worrying about the future”. ‘Slap-happy’ (adj) is a slang word, having two senses: “dazed, silly, or incoherent from or as if from blows to the head; punch-drunk” and “cheerfully irresponsible or carefree”. ‘Slap-happy’ in the second sense is a descriptive synonym of ‘happy-go-lucky’. ‘Trigger-happy’ (adj) is also a slang word with two senses of “having a tendency or desire to shoot a firearm before adequately identifying the target” and “inclined to react violently at the slightest provocation or without thinking”.

The terms ‘money-happy’ and ‘clothes-happy’ refer to a major preoccupation with money or clothes to the exclusion of almost everything else. They are not common and have nothing very much to do with 'happiness'. ‘Money-happy’ means “preoccupied with making, saving, talking about money”. ‘Clothes-happy’ refers to “crazy for clothes”. The inference may be that one is only happy when thinking about clothes but that is weak. A person who is always concerned with more clothes and clothes shopping would be referred to as clothes-happy. ‘Bomb-happy’ was a term used in the military to describe someone who had been in action too much and was a little crazy / neurotic because of it.

All the compounds with ‘happy’ as a constituent have their meanings which cannot be deduced from their components.


5 Semantics of the Idioms with ‘Happy’

Apart from a broad collocational range of ‘happy’, it can be grouped together with other words to form idioms. Most of the idioms with ‘happy’ included under discussion here are noun phrasal lexemes, playing the syntactic functions of subject, object and complement. These idioms fall into three groups: pure idioms, semi-idioms and literal idioms.


5.1 Pure Idioms

The meaning of a pure idiom has nothing to do with the meaning of its constituents. ‘A happy hunting ground (for / of somebody)’ means “a favourable place, source, etc. where somebody may do, observe and acquire what he wants”. From American Indian folklore, this idiom means “a happy after-life, or a paradise”. It acts as a count noun allowing plurality. ‘Happy families’ denotes a card game using a special pack of cards with the pictures of members of various families on them. The aim of the game is to collect as many complete families as possible.


5.2 Semi-idioms

In a semi-idiom, the meaning of at least a constituent is literal and also at least another has non-literal meaning as in the following idioms:

‘The happy mean’, the same as ‘the golden mean’, has the meaning of “the moderate course of action” in which ‘mean’ has its literal meaning “course of action”. ‘A happy talk’ denotes an informal talk among the participants on a television news broadcast, and also a broadcast format featuring such talk. ‘Many happy returns (of the day)’ is used as a greeting to somebody on his / her birthday, accepting no grammatical or lexical change. ‘The happiest days of one’s life’ denotes one’s childhood or schooldays that remind children how fortunate they are in not being working adults. This idiom will change the meaning if ‘day’ is in the singular: the idiom denotes the wedding day. ‘The happy couple / pair’ denotes a bride and a groom or a very recently married couple.


5.3 Literal Idioms

‘A happy choice’ denotes a name, a word, a gift, a location, etc. that is, or turns out to be, suitably or fortunately chosen. ‘A happy ending’ denotes a successful conclusion to a series of event or a satisfactory settlement of earlier troubles and trials, especially happening at the end of a story, a film or a play.


6 Conclusion

The English word denoting happiness 'happy' is very interesting to study. We have discussed its grammatical features and semantic structure together with its synonyms, antonyms and collocational range as well as idioms with ‘happy’ included. As ‘happy’ is polysemous with its central meaning of describing positive pleasure that people have, it has its partial synonyms, near-synonyms, antonyms and wide collocational range for each sense. Many idioms of which ‘happy’ is a constituent have been concerned. ‘Happy' is a neutral, generic term, used informally, formally and in literature.

In teaching and learning the word 'happy', different ways of presenting the meaning of words should be taken into account. According to Ur (1996: 63), there are different ways such as concise definition, detailed description, illustration, demonstration, context, examples (hyponyms), synonyms, antonyms, translation and associated ideas or collocations. It would be best to combine some ways rather than only one. The teaching of ‘happy’ by means of synonyms cannot be conducted alone for it has no absolute, but descriptive, synonyms. By means of the context, both the descriptive meaning and connotation can be conveyed. Other meanings should be introduced to the English learners after they have mastered the central meaning of denoting happy states. The compounds and idioms of which ‘happy’ is a constituent should be provided then. The teaching of other meanings and the compounds or idioms should be dependent on the learner English level and interest; otherwise the learners will be overwhelmed, failing to learn any words or idioms successfully.



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Nguyen Thi Van Lam is an English teacher (Giao vien Anh van), at Foreign Languages Department (Khoa Ngoai Ngu), Vinh University (Truong Dai Hoc Vinh), 182 Le Duan Road (Duong Le Duan), Vinh City (Thanh pho Vinh ),Nghe An Province (Tinh Nghe An), Vietnam

TIL (Tun Institute of Learning, Yangon, Myanmar),  is grateful to Madam Nguyen Thi Van Lam to have the opportunity to publish her article on its web-site.

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