Word of the Week: Happenstance

Happenstance – A (Nearly) Homegrown Favourite

Happenstance: (noun) a circumstance, especially that is due to chance; chance or a chance situation; coincidence. The Cambridge Dictionary adds ‘especially one producing a good result’.

It’s pretty versatile, and can be used with or without an article (‘it was an agreeable happenstance’ or simply ‘our meeting was happenstance’), or following the preposition ‘by’, as in ‘we met by happenstance’.

So it’s essentially a synonym for ‘circumstance’ or ‘chance’, with a slightly more positive connotation.

It’s etymology, too, is relatively straightforward. Around 1857 (its first known use according to Merriam and Webster) some clever chap decided to blend ‘happen’ and ‘circumstance’ to create ‘happenstance’, and around the turn of the century a bunch of other people decided that was a nice idea, and decided to use it too.

No fancy Latin origins this time; both of its forming words came from English. (Well, of course there are always Latin origins if you go back far enough. We were pretty close, since ‘happen’ actually came into late Middle English, superseding the simpler Middle English verb ‘hap’, when the English noun ‘hap’ and ‘en’ suffix – derived from the old English ‘nian’ suffix which had Germanic origins – combined to form a new verb. But ‘circumstance’, the kill joy, has distinctly Latin derivations. ‘Circum’ meant ‘around’ and ‘stare’ meant ‘stand’, breeding ‘circumstare’, meaning to ‘encircle’ or ‘encompass’. This developed into ‘circumstantia’ which, by a linguistic happenstance, combined with the Old French ‘ciconstance’ to form the Middle English ‘circumstance’.)

Phew. That was pretty etymologically heavy.

Anyhow, after our ingenious 19th century friend coined the term, its use has continued to increase. Somewhat surprisingly, despite its archaic, antiquated ring, its usage (after plateauing at a low rate for its first half a century as a linguistic new-born) has soared since around 1920, reaching a peak in around 2007.I think, perhaps, we rather like having such pretty (and slightly pretentious) alternative to ‘coincidence’ and ‘chance’.

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One Comment Add yours

  1. PETE MOLYNEUX says:

    Brill! Loved it Dad Mobile: 07889 022 675Twitter: @petemolyneuxLinkedInFacebook

    Like

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