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  • Paul Anthony Jones


(n.) a kingfisher

male kingfisher stands on a branch

Popular on HH this week was the story behind the word halcyon, and the expression halcyon days. As we explained over on Twitter, halcyon literally means “kingfisher”, although etymologically it’s thought to combine two Greek elements: hals, meaning “sea” or “saltwater”, and kyon, meaning “conceiving” (or literally, “swelling”; it’s a distant relative of cumulus clouds, in that sense).

The expression halcyon days, meaning “a time of calmness or youthful innocence”, alludes to an odd bit of Ancient Greek folklore that claimed kingfishers nested out at sea during the winter, where they were granted unseasonably calm weather by the gods. (They actually nest in tunnels on riverbanks, of course, but folklore doesn’t often let the facts get in the way of a good story.)

But this being Ancient Greek, there’s a myth here too.

Alcyone was a legendary daughter of King Aeoleus, and the wife of Prince Ceyx of Thessaly. The two were very happily married, and as such would jokingly refer to one another as “Zeus” and “Hera”. This didn’t go down too well with the real Zeus and Hera, however, who became so enraged by the pair’s disrespectful nicknames that Zeus threw a thunderbolt into the sea to capsize Ceyx’s ship.

When she heard of her husband’s fate, Alcyone went to throw herself into the sea but was magically transformed at the last minute into a kingfisher—and the birds’ maritime connection was born.

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