For the holiday season, vocabulary expert Susan Ebbers discusses several interesting differences between happy and merry, providing applications and lesson suggestions for grades K-12.

He sprang to his sleigh, to his team gave a whistle,
And away they all flew like the down of a thistle.
But I heard him exclaim, ere he drove out of sight,
"Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good-night."
—Clement Moore's "A Visit from St. Nicholas" (1823)

"Happy Christmas to all"?  Why did Clement Clarke Moore's "right jolly old elf" exclaim happy when noted music historian William Studwell claims that echoes of the English carol "We Wish You a Merry Christmas" resound from the 16th century? If indeed Professor Moore wrote the poem for his own six children, he may, possibly, have chosen happy to avoid any hint of questionable behavior and to maintain Santa's reputation. For those of a more puritanical mindset, merry suggested frivolous revelry involving beer, mulled wine, or other spirits, while happy inspired a feeling of peace, contentment, and devout bliss.

While Moore called Christmas happy, Charles Dickens preferred merry in "A Christmas Carol" (1843). "Merry Christmas" resounds across the story, until Scrooge himself finally joins the chorus. US radio stations broadcast the book for years; it must have affected popular culture and helped cement merry as the companion for Christmas in American usage. (See the OxfordWords blog for more on these "yuletide adjectives.")

At any rate, the word merry elicits feelings of lightheartedness and high spirits — whatever type of "spirits" are fueling the joy. Centuries ago, it was understood to denote only a pleasant sense, but today, every word in this family is bright — be it merry, merriment, or merrymaking. Nothing negative. There is no *un-merry. No *mis-merry.

But indeed, unhappiness exists.

In fact, happy — containing the base hap — belongs to a much larger family of morphologically related words, some of which are not … happy. Consider mishap for example. And let's not forget hapless. Now that's a sad state. The base hap is chancy. In fact, this morpheme means "chance, fortune, luck" and derives from the Germanic layer of the English language, via Old English, Old Norse.

Classroom Connections: Word Building, Sorting, and Stories

Kids could have a ball with the hap family. Here are some fun ideas that teachers can try out in their classrooms or as wordy extracurricular activities:

  • Students could play with prefixes and suffixes, hooking them onto the base hap to form words: happy, happiness, unhappy, unhappiness, happier, happiest, unhappier, unhappiest, happily, happy-go-lucky, hapless, mishap, perhaps, haphazard, happen, happening, etc. They might build some fun expressions, like boy-happy and soccer-happy.
  • Let's not forget about linguistic blends or portmanteau words. Kids might discuss the formation of happenstance (smashing together happening + circumstance and leaving some bits out). Which letters were left out? How does the meaning of the two original words reflect the meaning of the blended word? How is the blended meaning different from the original words? Sometimes, we see the blend happenchance. Isn't it pretty much the same as happenstance? But they rhyme! What fun we could make of that!
  • Students could also sort the hap family of words into groups. Divide a paper into three columns, or sort word cards into three groups. Here are some possible sorting categories.
    1. A good thing  |  Not a good thing  |  Neither good nor bad
    2. A common word  |  A rare word  |  An extinct word
    3. I know it and use it  |   I have heard of it   |  I have never heard of it
  • Or, let students invent a word that contains hap, by adding a prefix and/or suffix to it. Encourage them to guess the meaning of one another's inventions. This means they must be prepared to explain it; thus the lesson becomes even more metacognitive and metalinguistic.
  • It is perhaps a happy day when the new word we have coined just happens to exist already, in the place where sleeping words lie — the Oxford English Dictionary.
    1. Should some clever kiddo invent happiless, give a cheer and resurrect it from the OED: "The hopeless, happiless condition of this poor girl" (1870, Daily News).
    2. What about happenable?  Sure! "Through a confluence of all events happenable to Man" (Osborne, 1673).
    3. Happify? Why not!  "If that don't happify your heart, then my name's not Sam Slick." (Haliburton, 1836)  
  • ttp:// Younger children might enjoy the children's book Fortunately.  As a first-grade teacher, I read it to the class. We enjoyed predicting what potential calamity would next befall poor Ned — and how he would avoid tragedy by a hair. After reading it a few times, I used it as a springboard for discussing related vocabulary words: fortune, misfortune, misfortunate, unfortunate — even mishap.

Getting back to the seasonal poem, merry most certainly gets my vote. Its entire morphological family suggests joy and high spirits. That hap family is just too accident prone. Wishing you merry!

Susan Ebbers is the creator of Vocabulogic, an edublog focusing on word knowledge and linguistic insight. She is a former K-8 teacher and principal, a Cambium Learning curriculum author, a national literacy consultant, and a doctoral candidate. Her research interests pertain to word-learning aptitude, measurement design, and motivation theory. In her spare time she writes poetry, including the Jamie's Journey series of children’s books. Visit her website or follow her on Facebook. To read more about how morphological insight contributes to vocabulary growth, read her research overview on Vocabulogic.