If you pull out your German-English dictionary and look up “happy,” you will find both fröhlich and glücklich. You will also likely find zufrieden, unbeschwert, freudig and glückselig. I must say that the last of these, glückselig, jumped out at me because of Martin Seligman’s pioneering work in positive psychology, it seems that he might be aptly named  in that he was one of the first psychologists to explore “happiness” (he has now shifted to talking about “flourishing” – more on the motivations for this transition here). In addition, happy itself may appear because for reasons I still can’t fathom, it is fairly common to sing the song “Happy Birthday” – in English – on someone’s birthday?!

As I noted in What’s the Point? –lich is a German suffix. When we pull off the –lich, we get froh and das Glück. Something goes wrong, however, if we try to remove the -“y” from “happy.” Although -“y” is a perfectly good suffix in English (e.g., “snowy” and “snow”), removing it from “happy” results in the non-word “happ.” Interestingly, though, “happ” – “chance, fortune” – is the source word for “happy” as well as for “happen” and “happenstance” and “perhaps” and “haphazard.” That these are relatives of “happy” makes me more content (yes, bad pun intended) with what I find when I look at the entry for das Gluck and find “fortune” and “luck” and “chance” and “auspiciousness” and “luckiness” and when checking glücklich find “fortunate” and “lucky.”

What about froh and fröhlich, do they also incorporate this connection with “chance?” This seems to depend on where you look – dict.cc does include “lucky” in its entry for froh, but PONS includes it in neither fröhlich nor froh and canoo.net only connects froh indirectly by giving glücklich as its superordinate (Oberbegriff).  To spend a moment on canoo, one of the things that I find especially useful about this site are the connections it makes – superordinate and subordinate terms, as well as to synonyms and antonyms, the word forms that can be built from an entry and the forms from which an entry is composed (froh has 25 of the former but none of the latter as it cannot be decomposed) and information about a word’s morphology (there are 22 inflected forms of froh). Upon re-discovering all of these lovely bits of data that canoo offers, I thought I’d look at the antonyms (Gegensatz) for all four of our friends.

froh & traurig
fröhlich & ernst

glücklich & traurig
and glücklich & unglücklich
das Glück & Kummer and das Glück & Pech

Now the traditional antonym for “happy” is “sad” and on this criterion, froh and glücklich seem the best bets for translating “happy.” Ernst is “serious” or “grave” (the adjective) or “seriousness” and fits with fröhlich meaning “cheerful.” Das Glück is of course a noun, so the comparison is “happiness”and its traditional opposite “sadness” and here der Kummer seems too strong – “misery” or “grief” – and das Pech is either “bad luck” or unrelated – “pitch” as in the black substance that was used to make ships watertight (which gives us a phrase that is translated as “thick as thieves” – zusammenhalten wie Pech und Schwefel – which is literally “to stick together like pitch and sulphur”).

 Given “happy” goes with “lucky” in German, I hope you will wish me Viel Glück! when attempting to discern which meaning is intended!

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2 thoughts on “Happy-go-lucky?

  1. kwhirsh says:

    Just for your interest, there are several options for translating happy-go-lucky:
    leichtlebig – easy-going, pleasure-loving
    unbeschwert – lighthearted, jauntily, unburdened
    sorglos – carefree, casual, reckless, uncritical
    unbekümmert – freewheeling, insouciant, unconcerned, mindlessly

  2. […] possible translations of “happy” – zufrieden – that I shared in the post Happy-go-lucky. I had learned this as meaning something closer to “satisfied” or “content” […]

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