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I'm interested as to where the word heyday comes from, and how has it come to mean what it does.

The definition is:

hey·day 1     [hey-dey] noun

  1. the stage or period of greatest vigor, strength, success, etc.; prime: the heyday of the vaudeville stars.

  2. Archaic . high spirits.

Dictionaries seem to suggest it is linked to the phrase "high day" (meaning a holy day or festival day), but I don't know which came first. Also why would a holy/festival day come to mean a successful period?

Does it mean "hey" in the sense of an exclamation (e.g. "Hey, that's great!").

I must be honest... until I looked it up, I thought it was spelt "hay-day" and had it's origins in farming somehow. Guess that's not likely.

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Also see discussion in Mark Liberman's Language Log, 23 April 2004 –  jwpat7 Sep 16 '12 at 5:52
1  
I gotta say, all the connections drawn here between hey, the interjection, and heyday seem very suspicious to me. –  Malvolio Sep 17 '12 at 2:21
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2 Answers 2

up vote 8 down vote accepted

"Hey!" has been in constant use since at least the 13th century (according to OED 1 the earliest documentation is 1225, but identical expressions occur in several other Germanic languages). It's an interjection expressive of, well, practically anything you get excited about, much as it is today: "Hey, you!" "Hey! What a party!" "Hey-hey-hey!"

An 'intensive' variant, "Heyda" (also with continental cognates), is first recorded in 1526, in this eloquent cry uttered by Courtly Abusyon in Skelton's *Magnyfycence":

Huffa huffa taunderum taunderum tayne huffa huffa
[...] Rutty bully, ioly rutterkyn, heyda!

—an obvious antecedent of Cab Calloway's Minnie the Moocher, who sang:

hidee-hidee-hidee-hidee-hidee-hidee-hi
hodee-hodee-hodee-hodee-hodee-hodee-ho
scoodley-woo-scoodley-woo-scoodley-woodley-woodley-woo
zit-dit-dit-dit-dittle-but-dut-duttleoo-skit-dit-skittle-but-dit-zoy

By the end of the century the word is pronounced 'hayday'. It has also acquired a nominal sense: the high spirits (especially erotic high spirits) which move someone to cry "Heyda!" For instance, Hamlet reproaches his mother's unseemly sexuality thus:

You cannot call it love, for at your age
The hey-day in the blood is tame, it's humble,
And waits upon the judgment.

And Ford writes (1633):

Must your hot itch and pleurisy of lust
The heyday of your luxury be fed
Up to a surfeit?

Something very similar happened in the last century to the old interjection "hoppla" or "whoopee", which evolved into "making whoopee".

This nominal sense seems to have died out of colloquial use in the 18th century, to the extent that the last syllable was no longer understood and was taken to have something to do with "day"; consequently (and perhaps under the influence of Shakespeare's line) a sort of reverse folk-etymology shifted the sense of the noun to

"the stage or period when excited feeling is at its height [...] the most flourishing or exalted time" (OED)

which is the sense it bears today.

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So how does this tie in to "High Day" dictionary.reference.com/browse/high+day. Did that come later? –  Urbycoz Sep 17 '12 at 8:54
    
@Urbycoz As far as I know, it doesn't. OED notes a handful of spellings of high day for heyday and characterizes them as erroneous. I think we're probably dealing here with an eggcorn, reflecting the sense of release and gaiety connoted in phrases like holiday spirits. –  StoneyB Sep 17 '12 at 10:42
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"HEYDAY goes back to an Anglo-Saxon use of 'hey' as an expression of great enthusiasm and happiness. So a person's 'heyday' is the period of his greatest vigor and success." From "Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins" by William and Mary Morris (HarperCollins, New York, 1977, 1988).

http://wiki.answers.com/Q/Where_did_the_phrase_hay_day_come_from

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