Word for Wednesday: H is for Halcyon.

Halycon (adjective).

  • very happy and successful
  • calm, peaceful days
  • happy, golden times
  • prosperous, affluent
  • carefree

Derivation: Middle English alceon, from Latin halcyon, from Greek alkyōn, halkyōn.  First Known Use: 14th Century.

The halcyon days of childhood, a time when everything lay open before him, when the most minor episodes could be construed as events and every chance encounter gave rise to fresh insights.

Ivan Klíma

Normally the inspiration for my Word for Wednesday comes from a book I am reading, or have read / loved / am looking for an excuse to return to.  But this week is a little unconventional in that I had to go looking for a quote to fit the circumstances.  Having found this lovely quote by the Czech novelist and playwright, Ivan Klíma, I have now bought his novel, Love and Garbage.  I suppose it’s one way to discover different writers, and at least I can read a little more of his work to justify my blind quotation!

Anyway, the first stimulus for my thoughts of halycon days was our new, very noisy neighbours of the feathered variety.  A beautiful pair of kingfishers (there are a number of different Kingfishers within the genus, Halycon!)  I am delighted to have them here, but if you’ve ever identified a Kingfisher’s call, you will know that it is really raucous, not to mention disproportionately loud and incessant for such a diminutive bird!

Passed down from the tales of Ovid, the mythological forebear of the Kingfisher comes from ancient legend.  The Halcyon was believed to nest at sea, calming the waves around the time of the December winter solstice for a couple of weeks.  Just long enough to incubate and hatch their eggs, floating on their seaborne nest.   Although whatever the legend says about the calming powers of the Halcyon, in the here and now, the ‘calm, peaceful’ sense of the definition certainly does not apply to my new feathered friends!

By the time Shakespeare got to using ‘halycon’ in the 16th century, the phrase ‘halcyon days’ no longer related to the mythical bird, and instead had changed to be a metaphor for calm days. Moving on again, in modern use, ‘halcyon days’ is often used as a figurative reflection of a carefree past and better times gone by.  And bizarrely the seasonal connotation has flipped completed, as it now goes hand in hand with thoughts of summer and sunny days, whereas it was originally related to the dead of winter.  A very convoluted history for a single word, and just one of the glories of a complex, living language!

The second impetus for this week’s word choice is that I’ve been thinking about university and new beginnings recently.  It is getting to that time of year where students are heading off to their dorms for a new academic year, or in some cases, leaving home for the first time.

Those heady, halycon days of – for many – that first real taste of freedom and independence.  I don’t hark back to my university days particularly.  I am very happy with my life in my thirties – probably more than I have been at any other time (yet!).  But there is something wonderful about that time in your life when everything is still ahead of you, but you still have the relative shelter of transition between life at home with your parents, and setting out on your own path in the big wide world.  I don’t know that all that uncertainty seemed halcyon at the time, but I guess that is part of the rose-tinting that comes with reflection and hindsight.

 

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This photograph comes from a wander around Oxford on a sunny summer’s day last year.  I’m pretty sure  the building falls under the purview of Christ Church College, which is one of the many colleges under the umbrella of Oxford University.  The children’s author Lewis Carroll was an Oxonion; an alumnus of Oxford University.  More specifically, he was a fellow of Christ Church College, and may well have walked along the same path that I did, many years earlier. And what an inspiration such a setting must have been.

Strolling along on a glorious sunny day I can fully imagine Alice, sat with Dinah the cat under the shade of one of the many trees, reading and day dreaming about her wonderland adventures.  Although the word ‘halcyon’ is not used here, this quote for me is the absolute definition of halcyon days. Everything still to play for, and no such thing as a wrong choice:

Alice came to a fork in the road. ‘Which road do I take?’ she asked.

‘Where do you want to go?’ responded the Cheshire Cat.

‘I don’t know,’ Alice answered.

‘Then,’ said the Cat, ‘it doesn’t matter’.

Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland.

SO, that’s one word, two meanings, two seasons, and two birds – living and legend.  Also a wonderful quote using the word, and a quote giving the sense of the word, wrapped in a beautiful example of hyperbole and nonsense, typical of Lewis Carroll at his best.  I think that will do for today…I’m sure I never worked this hard at university!  Halcyon days indeed!

 

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2 thoughts on “Word for Wednesday: H is for Halcyon.

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