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Which is more correct and/or common "Happy Median" or "Happy Medium"? Any history on the two would also be interesting.

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3 Answers

up vote 2 down vote accepted

The phrase is happy medium. Here is NOAD's take:

happy medium noun a satisfactory compromise : you have to strike a happy medium between looking like royalty and looking like a housewife.

Etymonline says:

Happy medium is the "golden mean," Horace's aurea mediocritas.

So apparently it comes to us through classical scholarship.

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I don't think there's any reason to suppose happy medium in any way derives from golden mean, which is essentially a geometric/mathematical concept. The happy medium is all about finding a 'middle ground' which doesn't exactly satisfy most parties, but at least has the merit of not being too far away from anyone's ideal. –  FumbleFingers May 9 '11 at 2:24
Googling this one shows that people have been confusing the 'standard' medium version with the equally meaningful median version for years. Personally I don't see any reason to think median is in any way 'incorrect' - it's just (so far) less common. –  FumbleFingers May 9 '11 at 2:30
@FumbleFingers: I'm sure plenty of people do use it on the internet, but I would guess it's far less common in educated writing (COCA gives 80 uses of medium to zero for median). A good reason for avoiding it - especially as the median version doesn't seem to convey any different meaning - is that educated speakers will usually just assume you don't know the original phrase :) –  psmears May 9 '11 at 7:21
@psmears: You're quite right. I really meant I don't see much reason, not any. Your reason is certainly enough to make me stick to the standard. But looking to the future it wouldn't surprise me if the alternative eventually took over. Whilst it doesn't exactly convey extra or different meaning, it does seem somewhat more 'precise'. –  FumbleFingers May 9 '11 at 12:29
@Fumble: the golden mean is unfortunately used as a translation for two different classical concepts: the mathematical ratio and the philosophical idea of 'Nothing in excess.' Nobody has yet found a better English phrase for either. –  TimLymington Jan 10 '12 at 11:13
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The correct term is "happy median" referring to the middling result of a list of numbers. If the central number, say number 5 out of 9, is skewed higher by 4 more outlying numbers above than below, say for your house value at assessment, then you would have a favorable or "happy" median. It is clearly a statistically-based term, a happy medium being related to a person who channels the dead spirits and enjoys their work or circumstances.

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Medium is a richer concept than median, and so using the former conveys a more colorful expression.

Where median is a simple quantitative concept (the mid-point in a series of numbers), medium has some philosophical connotations. It literally means (Latin) "the thing in the middle", but it has two overlapping senses which may apply here:

  1. a conduit, or substance through which other substances move or act (eg, space is the medium of gravity)
  2. a bridge, something that contains elements of two opposites, that is able to unite them

So happy medium conveys a sense of connection -- harmonious balance -- evoking also (as TimLymington mentioned in a comment) the golden mean of Greek philosophy. The poetry of the phrase gets lost entirely when "median" is substituted.

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