The Grammarphobia Blog

Happy hour

Q: I noticed a sign yesterday outside a bar that listed “Happy Hour” as being from 4 to 7. Besides wondering about the oddity of describing a three-hour-period as an hour, I became curious about the history of “happy hour” as an expression. Any ideas?

A: The phrase “happy hour” showed up in the early 20th century as a US Navy term for a period of entertainment offered the crew on a ship.

Interestingly, the earliest example of the usage in the Oxford English Dictionary describes this nautical happy hour as lasting several hours.

Here’s the citation from the May 8, 1914, issue of the Day Book, a short-lived Chicago newspaper whose most famous reporter was Carl Sandburg:

“The happy hour is really several hours set apart three nights a week for the entertainment of the crew. … The entertainment consists of moving pictures, boxing bouts … and dramatics from vaudeville to tragedy.”

The OED defines the sense of the phrase you’re asking about as “a period of time (originally hour, now often longer), usually in the early evening, during which drinks are served in a bar or other licensed establishment at reduced prices.”

The dictionary’s first example for this modern sense—from the Nov. 26, 1951, issue of the Los Angeles Times—describes “the stampede at a Valley tavern during its ‘Happy Hour’ from 5 to 6 p.m. when all drinks are 25 cents.”

Here’s a more recent citation, from the March 24, 2011, issue of Time Out New York: “You can … indulge in the anytime happy hour—just drop $20 to drink as many beers and bottom-shelf mixed drinks as you’d like for two full hours.”

English borrowed the word “hour” from Old French in the mid-1200s, but it’s ultimately derived from hora, Latin for “hour” and Greek for “season” or “time of day.”

The OED says the English word originally meant—as it does now—“a space of time containing sixty minutes; the twenty-fourth part of a civil day.”

But by the early 1300s, according to the dictionary, the word “hour” was being “used somewhat indefinitely for a short or limited space of time, more or less than an hour.”

Oxford’s first citation for this usage, from a Middle English manuscript written around 1325, refers to “Þis hure of loue” (“this hour of love”).

So it’s not at all surprising that the Happy Hour sign you saw at a bar referred to three hours. Time passes quickly when you’re drinking.

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