The Semantics and Behaviour behind Happiness: The 2nd Hardest Word to Define/Translate

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Writing for The Atlantic, Emily Esfahani Smith (@EmEsfahaniSmith) penned an awesome piece titled “Meaning Is Healthier Than Happiness.” The byline to her article pretty much says it all:

“People who are happy but have little-to-no sense of meaning in their lives have the same gene expression patterns as people who are enduring chronic adversity.”


Ms. Smith, author of The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life That Matters, looks at one specific psychology study that in very simple terms broke down our actions as either selfless “giving” behaviour, which is associated with meaning, or as selfish “taking” behaviour, which is tied to happiness. As the authors of the study wrote:

“Happiness without meaning characterizes a relatively shallow, self-absorbed or even selfish life, in which things go well, needs and desire are easily satisfied, and difficult or taxing entanglements are avoided. If anything, pure happiness is linked to not helping others in need.”

While I can see a lot of the logic behind the differentiation in the concepts of happiness and meaning/self-fulfillment, I was curious how language can, if at all, inform us of what our ancestors thought of the word “happy.” As always, diachronic linguistics (just a fancy way of saying the history behind language) can be as informative as the study of current medical and psychological data.

To begin, what we in English today refer to as “happy” or “happiness” comes from Middle English (1300-50) and essentially meant “lucky, favored by fortune, prosperous.” In fact, according to that book Donnie T. calls “a dirty old rag too stupid to capitalize my own name” – or what the rest of us dumbass plebes call a dictionary – the origin of “happy” right across Western Europe was strikingly similar:

From Greek to Irish, a great majority of the European words forhappy’ at first meantlucky.’ An exception is Welsh, where the word used first meantwise.'”

Bloody Welsh! Always usurping the rest of Europe with their flute-playing high-falutin beliefs. Must be their enviable weather and mouth-watering laverbread.

But I digress. As usual. Same-same but different this time.

Let’s go back even further in history, shall we? It would seem the Romans had the same idea behind their concept of “happy,” as their words – laetus (masculine) laeta (feminine) and laetum (neuter) – meant (1) favourable/propitious; (2) cheerful/joyful/glad; and (3) prosperous/successful.

One step back in time and we arrive at the ancient Greeks, who finally had a unique idea all their own (how did nobody from Homer to Aristotle ever get anything right!); “happiness” for them was “experiencing the fullness of something.” Now contrast that with its opposite, which Aristotle defined as “to be in want, to be in need, to be destitute.”

Okay, maybe the Greeks got something right besides a salad.

In any event, I wanted to look at a completely different language and one with no ties to English, Germanic, Latin or Greek to see what the etymology behind “happiness” was somewhere else in the world. Enter, stage left, Messrs Chinese and Korean.

In Korean, the noun “happiness” is 행복 (haengbok), while in adjective form (which is technically a verb in KO-ree-an…yeah, wrap your head around them apples!) “happy” is 행복하다 (haengbokhada). Both the haeng and bok characters are derived from Classical Chinese, haeng being translated as “fortunate” and bok meaning “happy.”

(Strangely, the opposite of haengbok from Characters is 명복, myeongbok, whose two geulja refer to “dark” (or Hades by extension) and “fortune” (the same bok in “happy/happiness”), which taken together are translated as “happiness in the after life.”)

This led me to don my Ignatius J. Reilly sleuthing toque and go behind the scenes to figure out what the Chinese characters xing (haeng) and fu (bok) originally referred to from their radicals.

As it turns out, xing (haeng) comes from two radicals, land & bitter (filed under the radical for “shield” in a Chinese dictionary), meaning “fortunate/lucky,” while fu (bok) stems from four radicals, manifest, mouth, one & field (filed under the radical for “manifest” in a Chinese dictionary), meaning “happy/prosperity/luck.”

So what do we take away from this hot mess of language and science? Basically, the Greeks had it right all along when it comes to the notion of “happiness,” a fact now backed up by empirical data. (Jeez, even the Welsh seemed to have a better handle on this notion than the rest of the world, at least linguistically).

Be that as it may, I for one – when speaking in English – do still consider happiness as being both blessed and fortunate, a state of mind that propels us to be kind to others and to practice selflessness over selfishness, peace over turmoil, love over hate.

The byline to my post today is “The 2nd Hardest Word to Define/Translate,” which begs the question: What is the hardest word to define in and translate from English?

Ooh ooh ooh! A cliffhanger ending! The reader has a mild inclination to scoff and then kill this window, but an even greater desire to slap me silly unless I follow through with my pledge and answer this confounding conundrum posthaste. You might have to wait a day or two for that, though…

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Keys to Getting a Million Views for Your Site

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Bloggers/Writers/Entrepreneurs, take note. If you want to up your A game and reach seven digits with your total number of site views, take a few minutes and read this excellent piece by Jon Westenberg (@Jonwestenberg) titled “The Tools I Used To Reach 5,000,000 Views on Medium.”

I’ll let Mr. Westenberg do the heavy lifting on this one, but basically he highlights some really simple-to-use yet highly effective tools. This can be accomplished by making use of websites like Grammarly, Google Trends, KeyHole, Speedlancer,, and Google News, while vigorously seeking out your competition and finding out how you measure up against them in terms of content, popularity, on-target marketing, etc.

It obviously goes without saying that if your site looks at least half-normal – not like one of these “Top 10 worst websites you’ll wish you hadn’t seen” – and you know how to string together sentences that prove you graduated from grammar school (pun intended), then the seven-digit site views goal is not a pipe dream; it’s definitely within reach as long as you’re willing to do a lot of hard work and log a ton of miles.

Should you get down on yourself and lose confidence somewhere down this path, just remember what my favourite hagwon in Korea used to remind its students: “You can do!”

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Theft by Finding: Diaries (1977-2002) by David Sedaris

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Yep, it’s official: David Sedaris has a new book out called Theft by Finding: Diaries (1977-2002). That, of course, is good news; when it comes to random narratives about everyday life, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone today writing in the English language who not only writes with more panache, but can also narrate these stories out loud and in person better than anyone. Don’t believe me? Check out his reading of this classic story, “Six to Eight Black Men,” one of many gut-bustingly (you’re welcome for the new addition, OED)hilarious stories from his book Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim.

Patton Oswalt (@pattonoswalt) wrote a great review of the book for The New York Times titled “David Sedaris’s Diaries Track a Path From Struggle to Success.” However, if you want to listen to the man himself wax poetic about Theft by Finding, you can listen to David Sedaris here.

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Quote of the Day

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“The four most beautiful words in our common language: I told you so.”

Gore Vidal

I’m having one of those “I-told-you-so” days, so thought this Quote of the Day was particularly apropos. It all started when I went to the post office to return some merchandise the S.O. bought a couple of weeks ago after being assured in an online ad (i.e. scam) that the beauty products were FREE! FREE! FREE! as long as you filled out a short survey (i.e. you provided your phone number, email and mailing address).

To which I replied, “Nothing in this world is free.”

To which the S.O. replied, “No, no, no. This time it really is free. I swear.”

To which I so wittily and handily replied, “Indeed, you do have a potty mouth, but it doesn’t change the price of tea in China, nor does it make these things free.”

After numerous phone calls to a “No Caller ID” with a P.O. Box as an address, and of course the requisite $30 in postage, the matter is now settled.

I’ll shorten the above witticism to three words: Told ya so.

But back to Gore Vidal, one of those rare – like, really rare – writers that intimidated fellow authors, pundits, critics and politicians back in his day because of his pedigree, breadth of knowledge, Transatlantic accent (ha ha ha), and overall confidence (i.e. smugness) that was perpetuated as much by myth as it was by a shocking understanding of what appeared at times to be everything and everyone. If you’ve ever read Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge, Gore Vidal was pretty much the real-life version of Elliott Templeton.

Personally, my favourite book by Mr. Vidal was The Golden Age,  a novel that offers readers the same kind of inside look into a fascinating period of world history/World War II as Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead; with the former, we’re taken inside the White House and the inner sanctum of FDR; in the case of the latter, we have a firsthand look into how generals plotted the insanely complicated island-hopping battles against the Japanese during the Pacific Campaign.

If you have yet to read anything by Gore Vidal, there’s a ton of material online, from essays and articles to brilliant one-liners and general observances, so go and check him out. Then I can tell you, I told you so!

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Go See This Movie

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So, funny story.

I went to see a movie earlier today about a bear chasing a burned bison. Then some kids got killed at Yellowstone National Park. Then a self-admitted murderer was set free without as much as a trial. Something about holes being looped together, or loops being holed together…or some such thing. But that wasn’t the funny part.

The funny part came approximately 20 minutes into watching Population Zero, the much-heralded film from producer @TylerLevine and directors @JulianPinder and @Adamlevins, when a grouchy old man a few rows up from me proclaimed (loud enough for everyone in the theatre to hear), “I didn’t pay to come and see a documentary! I want to see a real movie!” His wife (I assume) then fled to the other side of the row (i.e. the burned/shamed bison), while the husband (i.e. the stalking bear) soon followed her lead and took a seat beside her on the far end.

The theatre quickly filled with the smell of urine because the rest of us were busy peeing our pants laughing.

First thing’s first, though: Population Zero is so good and in so many ways that it’s hard to believe it was made on a shoestring budget. The cinematography was breathtaking, the music mesmerizing, the acting spot-on and completely believable, and the storyline compelling, to say the least.

Second thing’s, well, second. Duh! I don’t want to give away too much, but if you believe metafiction works like Don Quixote, Barney’s Version and The New York Trilogy  are not “real” novels – and metacinema works such as A Clockwork Orange, Fight Club and Stranger than Fiction are not “real” films – because their creators warped the whole suspension of disbelief thing, then perhaps Population Zero is not for you.

If, however, you go in open-minded and appreciate real grit through the cinematic lens, then you will be drawn in as slowly as the waters of the Upper Niagara River. Soon enough, without even realizing it, you’ll be sent barreling down the river when you suddenly hit a series of rapids, your heart pounding with anticipation. This all culminates in an ending that is sure to shock/surprise/titillate even the harshest of movie critics when the Falls themselves seem to knock you over the head right out of the blue.

To sum up: (1) Bison and bears make interesting animals to watch chase each other; (2) do not camp in an area of any national park without at least 12 local residents; and (3) Niagara Falls makes a wonderful metaphor for strong-to-quite-strong films.

The end.

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It’s Only Partially All Doom & Gloom. Sort of.

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Not surprisingly, @TheEconomist published an interesting article last month titled “A sense of dread.” Ooh ooh ooh! the reader says excitedly, head in hands, lunch about to be expelled through their oral cavity, Another Armageddon scenario where we all perish and the world blows up in one final fiery scene that is caught on camera by a distant NASA satellite called CovfefeMyAss. This will represent the sum total of all we have to bequeath future intelligent life years/centuries/millennia from now. No remnants of our scientific achievements, art, or philosophy left for posterity’s sake. Conspicuously, no remnants of us.

WTF? they’ll say when they come upon the footage in this now-rogue satellite spinning out of control somewhere near Andromeda. Doesn’t this remind you of that scene in Star Wars when the Death Star is blown up? one guy will say to his fellow smarter-than-human-beings colleagues.

Ha ha ha, they’ll all respond. Good one, Red Leader! That was funny.

Ah, doom and gloom. Or is it? Is it in fact a Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, or are we merely repeating, ad nauseam, what our forebears have done for time immemorial, which is to do believe what The Economist declares: “There is nothing new in society being gripped by anxiety about the present and pessimism about the future.”

As my mother likes to remind me on a weekly basis, today’s youth is so much more screwed up than the last, what with their ear thingies in their ears and their handphone thingamajigs in their hands as they walk down the street. And why don’t young people have home rotary phones in their homes anymore!

Ha ha ha. Just kidding, Mom. It’s all good.

To return to Economist-like seriousness, though, the above link reviews a book by Richard Overy, a noted World War II historian, and his latest addition to the literary world, a book that focuses on the years between the two wars (1918-1939). It was a time when “the presentiment of impending disaster was even more deeply felt (and perhaps with better reason) than it is today. Indeed, Mr Overy sets out to show that it was a uniquely gloomy and fearful era, a morbid age that saw the future of civilisation in terms of disease, decay and death.”

Let’s step back in history for a moment, shall we? This should be fun. In that 21-year inter-war period, the world saw, in no particular order, the rise of a virulent strain of communism and Marxism, the brutality of the Spanish Civil War, a surge in polio cases throughout developed nations, the introduction to the world stage of winners like Hitler, Mao, Mussolini, Stalin & Franco, the world’s first carpet-bombing campaign carried out on Geurnica, the average life span in rural communities in the richest countries not surpass the average age of death for a well-to-do Greek person 2,000 years earlier, and, of course, the Great Depression.

The list is obviously longer. However, like cream-colored ponies and crisp apple strudels, these are just a few of my JA-inspired favourite things that popped to mind.

Today, inundated as we are by real-time news stories and a constant barrage of images, soundbites, texts, alerts, online posts, emails, retweets, etc., it might truly feel like we are balancing precariously on The Razor’s Edge.

But are we?

For example, what if the poles were to reverse on themselves as a result of global warming? No big deal, says NASA. It’s happened many times over the millennia, naturally, and we’ve lived to talk about it. But what if global warming leads to another glacial epoch similar to the last Ice Age? Well, Homo sapiens appear to have survived with little more than some sticks and stones last go around, so I’d imagine we 21st-century human beings might be able to weather it, as a species, even if millions did perish in the geological catastrophe.

On the other hand, global warming is destroying our ozone layer, which in turn makes it potentially impossible to walk outside with exposed skin one day, a very real health risk, not to mention the melting of polar ice caps, floods, draughts, extreme weather patterns – you get the picture.

There’s also something unique that we have been living with since the Baby Boomer generation that no other civilization in history has had to contend with: the potential to annihilate ourselves in planetary suicide through the use of manmade weapons of mass destruction.

Contrary to what some believe, though, we are still in the midst of the longest era of global peace the world has known since we invented the means to kill each other in greater – and quicker – numbers. We’ve eradicated more diseases in the last century than all of human history put together. Knowledge, education and the sharing of information has never been this affordable, convenient or readily accessible to the masses. Eat your heart out, Gutenberg.

These are the veritable “Doorbells and sleigh bells, And schnitzel with noodles” we should be trying to focus on as we’re pummeled with streaming videos of captives being beheaded in foreign lands, women and girls raped in the name of “religion,” food banks overrun in the biggest cities throughout the “developed” world,  mental health cases spiking everywhere (although this is probably more just the world waking up to its reality and not denying it any longer), and the world’s most powerful Commander-in-Chief seemingly bent on bringing ruin to the planet as expeditiously (that means “promptly or “quickly,” Donnie T.) and with as little covfefe (………………..) as possible.

Long of the short: As much as we love to talk about the doom and gloom drenching us like a cancer with more cancerous cancerness than the last generation, I think it’s time we realize that things may not be quite as covfefe as we tend to think in our dark hours of Trumpian pessimism. As a famous author once said when writing about subjects like War and Peace, “We imagine that as soon as we are thrown out of our customary ruts all is over, but it is only then that the new and the good begins…There is a great deal, a great deal before us. I say that for you.”

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Quote of the Day

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  1. You will receive a body.
  2. You will learn lessons.
  3. There are no mistakes, only lessons.
  4. A lesson is repeated until learned.
  5. Learning lessons does not end.
  6. “There” is no better than “here.”
  7. Others are merely mirrors of you.
  8. What you make of your life is up to you.
  9. Your answers lie inside you.
  10. You will forget all this.

10 Rules for Being Human” (from If Life Is a Game, These Are the Rules), Cherie Carter-Scott

I don’t think I would have ever written down this list in my literary journal 20 years ago if it hadn’t been for No. 10. Priceless. Like, toooootally MasterCard priceless.

There’s really no rhyme or reason to my selection for the Quote of the Day. Each one just kind of comes to me no differently than cosmic dust filtering in from the farthest reaches of the “Chocoalte Bar” Galaxy, penetrating our now ozone-less atmosphere, and then connecting with my uber sensitive-to-the-universe brain. That’s what happened this morning after I’d finished my 200th sit-up and was getting ready to do 100 chin-ups before getting started on my daily half-triathalon. Wednesdays are full-out triathalons.

Man, I love fitness!

I don’t know much about Dr. Cherie Carter-Scott (@DrCherie) except (1) I can’t cut and paste the accent aigu over the first “e” in her name; (2) she is known as the “Mother of Coaching” (anyone know who the Father is? Could it be Vader?); (3) she has been a self-dubbed “pioneer in the field of Human Development and Motivation since 1974,” the year the world stood still on June 19; and (4) I really liked the above “10 Rules for Being Human,” and have ever since I came across it for the first time in 1997, the year the world stood still once again on August 31 and September 5.

Click here if you’d like to learn more about Ms. Carter-Scott.

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“Population Zero is compulsive viewing”

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That’s right: “compulsive viewing.” When you consider that about 78.456789% of society now suffers from OCD, that can only bode well for Population Zero, the gritty new film produced by Tyler Levine (@TylerLevine) and directed by Adam Levins (@Adamlevins) & Julian T. Pinder (@JulianPinder). It is currently being released in Canada by A71 Entertainment (@A71Ent).

Film critic Greg Klymkiw (@GregKlymkiwCFC) was at the premiere of the film here in the T dot and blogged about his thoughts in a piece called “How To Get Away With Murder in the U.S.A.” You can can read the review for yourself, but I think Mr. Klymkiw sums it up nicely when he writes:

“What I DO know is that it’s a damn enjoyable movie as it stands and I highly recommend that everyone stop going to see movies knowing what they’re going to see. It’s so much more edifying.”

Population Zero will be playing at Carlton Cinema until Thursday, June 1.

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Woe Be to Today’s Translators

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If you’re a translator, linguist, polyglot, linguaphile, word nerd, Scrabble freak – but especially if you work in the translation field to earn your keep – then you have to get a hold of the weekly Johnson column from @TheEconomist and published in the arts, books and culture section @EconArts.

Case in point: The Johnson column from May 27, titled “Why translators have the blues,” is so dead-on it’s scary. Not, like, Dracula kind of scary; it’s, like, holy-crapballs-I-can’t-believe-someone-else-in-the-world-feels-my-exact-pain kind of scary.

They say a picture is worth a thousand words. To that I say…word. In the case of the above image, the picture may not be worth a thousand words, but it is worth seven letters (and 13 points on its own in Scrabble) and echoes Rodney Dangerfield’s go-to one-liner – “Hey! I don’t get no respect.”

Well, the Johnson column captures one of the biggest problems strangling the translation industry these days. Although translation is one of the few areas of commerce that is (for now) safe from technology – computers may be able to generate beautiful artwork, beat world champion chess players, and have more Cliff Clavin knowledge than Ken Jennings – but as I’ve stated before on this site, technology has a long, long way to go before it can harness mankind’s greatest invention.

That being said, competition among translators, many of whom can be total hacks that might do better training to become astronauts for North Korea’s burgeoning space program, is more intense than ever. Translation fees have become a joke at international agencies (I’ve had clients offer me 5 cents/word when I don’t usually work for less than 20-25 cents/word, or $10/page when I charge between $60-$120/page), so the quality of the finished products being churned out is, by extension, tanking.

But who cares, right? Apparently clients like multibillion dollar corporations are caring less and less, at least in East Asia they seem to be. But Johnson has a potential solution: literary translation. Although the big money still lies with the big company contracts, native English speakers are becoming more and more interested in the opportunity to read books from countries outside Angloburbia.

As good ol’ Johnson mused at the beginning of this week’s column, “Translation can be lonely work, which may well be why most translators choose the career out of interest, not because they crave attention.” So listen up all you cheap dime store hoods who want a quality product at sub-minimum wage rates and with deadlines that defy the space-time continuum. All us lonely inkhorn scribes who move from one language to another for a living want is one thing: respect.

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Job Posting: P/T Editor @quillandquire

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Anyone looking for part-time editing work as Books for Young People Editor at Quill & Quire, click here for more information.

For those not familiar with Canada’s magazine of book news and reviews:

Quill & Quire is the magazine of the Canadian book trade. The print edition, published 10 times per year (monthly except for joint January/February and July/August issues), includes author profiles, news about upcoming books and developments in the Canadian industry, and reviews of new adult and children’s titles. The magazine reviews around 400 new titles each year, offering the most comprehensive look at Canadian-authored books in the country.

Q&Q also posts regular online updates, featuring up-to-the-minute industry news, regular listings of new book deals, award nominations and wins, personnel changes, and more. Our daily blog, Quillblog, spotlights book-related news in other media with our own context and commentary.

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