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Halcyon

Pronounced /ˈhælsɪən/Help with pronunciation

A halcyon time is calm, peaceful, happy and carefree. The fabled halcyon days of calm weather are traditionally the seven days each side of the winter solstice on 21 December.

The story goes back to a Greek legend that the kingfisher nested in the sea at the time of the winter solstice and that its floating nest brought calm to wind and water, what we now call the halcyon days, halcyon being from the Greek name for the kingfisher, alkuon. A romantic version of the legend was told by the Roman poet Ovid about Ceyx and Alcyone. She was the daughter of Aeolus, the god of the winds, and he was the son of the morning star. Ceyx was lost at sea and Alcyone was inconsolable. The gods took pity on them, turning them into kingfishers so that they might continue to live together. When they mated each year at the winter solstice the gods calmed the winds and seas so Alcyone might brood her eggs safely.

Alcyone’s name became halcyon in Latin, because of a mistaken belief that its real source was two Greek words that meant “conceiving on the sea” (folk etymology has a very long history). When the word first came into English, in reference to the Greek legend, it was usually written in the Greek way, but when it became a general word meaning peaceful or calm, the Latin form took over.

For us today, halcyon days often evoke a past time, the carefree days of our youth. An example is in The Innocents, by Sinclair Lewis (1917): “Halcyon days of sitting in rocking-chairs under the beech-trees on locust-zizzing afternoons, of hunting for shells on the back-side shore of the Cape, of fishing for whiting from the landing on the bay side, of musing among the many-colored grasses of the uplands.”

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 3 Jan. 2009

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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Last modified: 3 January 2009.