July 25, 2013

Case File #013.07.25: HALCYON

According to an ancient Greek myth, a preternatural bird known as the halkyon would build its nest on the sea each year around the time of the winter solstice, and for the duration of its nesting period, the bird would magically subdue the wind and the waves. (The myth also explains the origin of the halkyon and how it got its weather-controlling abilities, but we don't need to get into that for our purposes here.) Thus, the Greeks often referred to any stretch of calm winter weather as halkyon days. Although the halkyon was a mythical creature, the word halkyon was derived from the Greek alkyon, which meant “kingfisher,” and when halkyon was later borrowed by Latin, it became halcyon and was used to refer to the kingfisher bird. Sometime during fourteenth century, English speakers borrowed the Latin word and its avian sense, but with the revived interest in classical Greco-Roman culture that occurred during the Renaissance came increased knowledge of the Greek halkyon myth, and in 1540 the phrase halcyon days, along with its original Greek meaning, became part of the English vocabulary. In a relatively short time, however, the phrase became a designation not only for calm winter weather but also for tranquil weather at other times of the year, and by 1600, the word halcyon itself had come to mean “calm and peaceful.” About thirty years later, the word acquired the additional senses of “happy or idyllic” and “prosperous or affluent,” and the phrase halcyon days naturally followed suit and took on its current meaning of “a period of extraordinary happiness, peace, or prosperity.”

©2013 Michael R. Gates

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