Haphazard.

Close enough.

Dear Word Detective: Please explain the term “half hazard” — or is it “haphazard”? — JD.

It’s “haphazard,” but I rather like “half hazard.” It sounds like something made dangerous by being done in a half-hearted (or half-witted) fashion. Take the wiring in our house, for instance. Please. The previous owner told us he had rewired the house, and because he was some sort of engineer, we trusted him. Unfortunately, I now suspect he must have been a poultry engineer, if such things exist, because he certainly didn’t know squat about electrical wiring. Let’s just say that it’s not a good idea for one person to be typing something important on the computer when someone else decides to enjoy a nice piece of toast. Heck, the lights dim if the dog sneezes.

“Haphazard” is a great word meaning, of course, “distinguished by the lack of a plan; random; dependent on chance,” as in “Bob’s job search was haphazard, consisting mainly of shoving his resume under his neighbors’ doors.” It’s a versatile word, too. “Haphazard” can be a noun meaning “chance or accident,” an adjective or an adverb. The noun form appeared first, appearing in English in the late 16th century (“It is hap hazard, if you escape undamnified,” 1576). (“Damnify,” by the way, is an archaic word meaning “to injure.”)

Poking into the ancestors of “haphazard” is where things get interesting. “Haphazard” was formed by combining “hazard,” meaning “danger or risk” (from the Old French “hasard,” a game of chance involving dice), with “hap,” an archaic word for luck or chance (from the Old Norse “happ,” luck). So the combined sense was “danger of chance,” i.e., the danger of a casual approach to something important causing an accident.

That archaic “hap” may seem a small relic of another time, but it actually plays several large roles in English today. It first appeared in the 13th century, and by the early 14th century the form “happenen” had begun to replace “befall” as the main verb meaning “to occur by chance.” A bit more evolution, and by the 15th century we had our modern verb “to happen” meaning “to take place, to occur.” It also gave us our modern “perhaps” (literally by or through (“per”) chance or luck (“haps”)). And during the same period we gained the word “happy,” which originally meant “lucky or fortunate” but eventually broadened to mean “pleased or contented.”

2 comments on this post.
  1. Peter Nalder:

    May I add to your heaps on haps and hazards:

    On the latter there is the shy phrase TO PUT(or SET)AT HAZARD; I say ‘shy’ because it rarely shows its face nowadays. But I like it nonetheless.

    And on the former, equally demure, there are HAPLESS and MAYHAP, and I particularly like the north England dialect form ‘APPEN as in “‘appen you’ll be at t’ pub tonight?”. Rising inflexion at the end rather then anything else establishes that it’s a question. Here HAPPEN is really ‘maybe’ but in my made-up question it becomes almost an auxiliary verb rather than adverb: It’s certainly not the verb ‘to happen’ in this context. Compare it with “Will you be …” or, to link it with its origin, “Is here a chance you’ll be …”

    The charm of words enchants as ever.

  2. Christopher E.:

    I wonder if there is any connection between “happ” and the legal term “hap”, meaning to get or snatch or obtain.

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