A line from the great Anglo-Saxon poetic epic Beowulf (i.e. Bee-Wolf) has stayed with me ever since I read the poem in college. At this point in the narrative, the aged keeper of a treasure, addressing the earthen barrow that will hold it, issues a command:
Heald þu nu, hruse, nu hæleð ne moston,
(Modern English has replaced the letters þ and ð with th, and æ represents the sound of the vowel in hat.)
Here’s a translation:
Now you hold on, earth, now that heroes have not been able to,
To the wealth of warriors!
There’s not enough here for you to tell, but Anglo-Saxon poetry didn’t rhyme. Instead of rhyme, which is the repetition of the same sounds at the ends of lines, the Anglo-Saxons were fond of repeating sounds at the beginnings of words. You can see an example in the first line I quoted, where heald, hruse, and hæleð all begin with an h. (And notice how in the translation of the last part I managed to get in the alliterative phrase wealth of warriors.)
The alliteration so beloved by the Anglo-Saxon bards is still with us, where by “us” I mean modern speakers of English. A website called Pop Language lists a whole host of them, though not the currently voguish whole host itself. Just for the sake of the sound, we even allow ourselves to say things that are largely redundant, like hide nor hair, house and home, and, in the traditional wedding ceremony, to have and to hold.
All those alliterative h‘s, both in Beowulf and the modern phrases I mentioned, are a prelude to the h-word in the title of today’s posting: haphazardly. The adjective haphazard is really the fused version of two words that mean approximately the same thing. The first is the noun hap, which English took from Old Norse; now archaic in its own right, hap meant ‘fortune, chance.’ English still uses the derived verb happen, which originally meant ‘to occur by hap, i.e. by chance.’ The related adjective happy also happens to be very much alive; it originally meant and can still mean ‘fortunate,’ and from the fact that people react favorably to good fortune came the now predominant senses ‘joyful, feeling pleasure.’
The second component of haphazard is hazard, which can mean ‘a chance, an accident.’ English acquired the word from Old French hasard, which was ‘a dice game,’ and of course that is one type of game of chance. Old French seems to have taken hasard from Old Spanish azar, whose meanings included and still include ‘an unfortunate roll of the dice, chance, fate, misfortune, hazard.’ (Notice how azar/hazard emphasizes the negative side of fortune, in contrast to English happy, which accentuates the positive.) The Spanish phrase al azar means ‘randomly, by chance,’ which is similar to English haphazardly.
No doubt you’ll be happy to know that etymologists can trace Spanish azar back to Hispanic Arabic *azzahr, and then, without the definite article prefixed, back to Arabic zahr, which was ‘a die used in games of chance.’ There is speculation that one face of a type of die that the Arabs used had a flower on it, and that seems corroborated by the Spanish doublet azahar, also borrowed from Arabic, which means ‘orange blossom.’
This has been a long posting, so perhaps—and there’s the last modern descendant of hap—it’s time to put away, Beowulf-like, any more treasures of language history till another day.
© 2011 Steven Schwartzman