Q: Did the word “heyday” originally refer to a day when hay is harvested?
A: No, “heyday” isn’t etymologically related to either “hay” or “day.” In fact, it’s probably related to the exclamation “hey,” used to call attention, express surprise, and so on.
“Originally, the word was heyda, an exclamation roughly equivalent to the modern English hurrah,” John Ayto says in his Dictionary of Word Origins. “Probably it was just an extension of hey, modelled partly on Low German heida ‘hurrah.’ ”
When “heyday” first showed up in English writing in the early 1500s, it was an “exclamation denoting frolicsomeness, gaiety, surprise, wonder, etc.,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.
The earliest example in the OED is from Magnyfycence, a 1530 morality play by the English poet laureate John Skelton: “Rutty bully Ioly rutterkyn heyda.”
The central character in the play, Magnificence, is tempted by such political evils as Crafty Conveyance, Courtly Abusion, and Cloaked Collusion.
That line of dialogue, a comment by Courtly Abusion to Cloaked Collusion, comes from a medieval song. It’s apparently a satire on the gibberish supposedly spoken by drunken Flemish visitors in England.
The next Oxford example is from Abcedarium Anglo Latinum (1552), an English-Latin dictionary by Richard Huloet: “Heyda or hey, euax.” (The Latin exclamation euax means good.)
And here’s an expanded OED citation from Ralph Roister Doister, a comic play by Nicholas Udall, written around 1550: “Hoighdagh, if faire fine Mistresse Custance sawe you now, Ralph Roister Doister were hir owne I warrant you.”
As for the noun “heyday,” it referred to a “state of exaltation or excitement of the spirits or passions” when it first appeared in the late 1500s, Oxford says.
The dictionary’s earliest example, which we’ve expanded, is from Sir Thomas More (circa 1590), a play written and revised by several writers (a three-page, handwritten revision is said to be by Shakespeare):
“And lett this be they maxime, to be greate / Is when the thred of hayday is once spoun, / A bottom great woond vpp greatly vndoun.” (The word “bottom” here refers to a ball of thread.)
Ayto, in his etymological dictionary, says “the influence of the day-like second syllable did not make itself felt until the mid-18th century, when the modern sense ‘period of greatest success’ began to emerge.”
The OED defines the modern sense as the “stage or period when excited feeling is at its height; the height, zenith, or acme of anything which excites the feelings; the flush or full bloom, or stage of fullest vigour, of youth, enjoyment, prosperity, or the like.”
The earliest Oxford example is from The Adventures of Peregrine Pickle, a 1751 novel by Tobias Smollett, who refers to Peregrine as an “imperious youth, who was now in the heyday of his blood.”
As for the old interjection “hey,” the OED defines it as a “call to attract attention; also, an exclamation expressing exultation, incitement, surprise, etc.; sometimes used in the burden of a song with no definite meaning; sometimes as an interrogative.”
The dictionary’s earliest example is from an account of the life of Saint Katherine of Alexandria, written sometime before 1225: “Hei! hwuch wis read of se icudd keiser!” (“Hey! What wise counsel from such a well-known emperor!”)