Q: I’m Dutch and I recently read (from someone claiming to be a native English speaker) that the use of “happy end” is a common mistake made by those not intimately familiar with the language. Instead “happy ending” should be used. Can you enlighten me?
A: In the phrase “happy ending,” as you know, “ending” is a gerund, an “-ing” word that’s formed from a verb but functions as a noun.
Both the noun “end” and the gerund “ending” mean, among other things, a conclusion. So “happy end” and “happy ending” would seem to mean the same thing.
Although both are technical correct, “happy ending” is the idiomatic phrase (the one used naturally by a native speaker) when referring to the happy conclusion of a novel, play, movie, and so on.
The earliest example of the expression in the Oxford English Dictionary is from Memorable Conceits, a 1602 translation of a book by the French writer and printer Gilles Corrozet:
“A good entrie or beginning is not all, without it haue a happie ending.” (In the original French, “happie ending” is heureuse issue.)
And here’s a citation from a May 10, 1748, letter by Samuel Richardson in which he discusses a scene from his recently published novel Clarissa:
“The greater Vulgar, as well as the less, had rather it had had what they call, an Happy Ending.”
The OED defines “happy ending” as “an ending in a novel, play, etc., in which the plot achieves a happy resolution (esp. by marriage, continued good health, etc.), of a type sometimes regarded as trite or conventional.”
The dictionary adds that in the US the phrase is also used for “an orgasm, esp. one experienced by a man after sexual stimulation given after (or during) a massage.”
The OED doesn’t have an example of this usage, but the comedian Jim Norton uses the phrase in the sexual sense in the title of his 2007 book, Happy Endings: The Tales of a Meaty-Breasted Zilch. The cover shows him lying on a massage table.