8. Felicity et al.
Bill Long 6/8/05
This mini-essay has nothing to do with the television show of the same name from several years ago. When I ran across felicific in the Collegiate, and saw its meaning in ethical discourse--as something tending towards happiness or producing happiness-- I realized that there were about ten English words built off the "felix" root signifying something relating to happiness. Let's explore those words now. I will go from the words that are most used in English to those least utilized.
Felicity anchors all these words and has a surprisingly rich field of meaning. Its original significance, going back to Chaucer, is the way it is still largely used--to mean "the state of being happy; happiness." The OED suggests that the modern use of felicity includes the idea of "intense happiness." An older usage in Hamlet is memorable:
"If thou didst ever hold me in they heart,/ Absent thee from felicity awhile,/ And in this harsh world draw thy breath to pain,/ To tell my story" (5.2).
One might speak of the felicity of newlyweds or, theologically, the felicity of the saints in glory or, in political theory, the felicity which political arrangements ought to engender. But felicity also can mean a "blessing" or "success" or an "admirable appropriateness or grace of invention or expression." Bacon could write to King James I in 1605, "Your Maiesties manner of speech is indeed..full of facilitie..and felicitie." Thus, felicity is an all-purpose word suggesting happiness, aptness or good fortune.
The principal meaning of the adjective felicitous is, with respect to an action or expression, "Admirably suited to the occasion; strikingly apt or appropriate." We usually think of something that is felicitously said or done, such as "His manner was so felicitous, that he enraptured every person around him." In his famous work of 1802 on Natural Theology, in which Paley tried to argue for the orderly arrangment of nature as pointing to the existence of a beneficent creator, he said, "A felicitous adaptation of the organ to the object." In other words, the fact that things seemed to be adapted to and useful for the things they needed to do was an argument supporting the divine ordering of nature. One might say that an essay might abound in felicitous expressions. Something done or said felicitously is said or done "in an admirably fitting manner." "Never had painter more felicitously realized his conceptions." Or, "I emphasize the word 'spoil'..it is exquisitely and felicitously descriptive." Something apt, appropriate or happy is felicitous; if it is done aptly, it is done felicitously.
Felicitate is either a verb or a noun. The former appears much more frequently. Though its obsolete usage is "to render or make happy," the most frequent modern usage means "to congratulate" or "to reckon or pronounce happy." While older usages of felicitate as a verb take the direct object, such as in the clause, "Speeches, felicitating the good, or deprecating the evil to follow...," the more modern use of felicitate as a verb takes the preposition "on" or "upon." "The victor might be felicitated on his good fortune." The only attested usage of felicitate as a noun/participle meaning "make happy" is in King Lear: "I am alone felicitate/ In your deer Highnesse love." And, as might be expected, a felicitator is one who offers congratulatoins. "A compliment which his Majesty..paid to none other of his felicitators." The congratulations or compliment may be known as a felicitation. Upon his election to the Presidency in 1801, Thomas Jefferson could write, "I thank [you] for your kind felicitations on my election." Or, with high school graduations right around the corner, we could say, "Please extend my felicitations to your child." Although, come to think of it, if someone extended felicitations to other peoples' kids, he might be pulled over for questioning.
Concluding with More Obscure/Less Used Words
While the words given so far are used quite frequently, the following four are used almost not at all. Yet, let's run through them to see if we can claim them for our speech today. To felicify means "to render happy," as in the sentence, from 1683, "Whom..the allwise..and most mercifull God mai..sanctify, tranquilifi and felicifi." The unusual verb tranquilify is seemingly a hapax legomenon; it appears only here in the English language. The more usual verb is tranquillize. Before the advent of mind-altering drugs, to tranquillize simply meant to "calm" or "soothe." "Tranquillize, I conjure you, your agitated spirits." If God felicifies you, the result will be that you are a felicious (happy, joyous, prosperous) person. "These words were attended by a felicious shout."
And, then, becoming even more obscure, we have felicificative and felicificability. The former means "tending to make happy," and felicificativeness, built upon it, means the same thing. I can imagine someone using the word felicificativeness (7 syllables) in 1865 but not in 2005. Likewise with felicificabilty (8 syllables), defined by the only user of the term, J. Grote, as "capacity for happiness." I think it would be my happiness to forget these last two words though the others have real possibilities in current English usage. I think the range of terms beginning with feli- encourages us to think about the ways in which life is happy. Life indeed is happy, in so many ways. Focusing on words that convey that thought may bring our actual condition of felicity fully to our consciousness.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long