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I just read an article in The Economist's China section (2019/02/16) with the subtitle "Happy is as happy is told to".

Feeling confused, I googled about this expression, only to find a quite similar expression: "Happy is as happy does".

What do these sentences mean? Are they grammatically correct?

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The example from The Economist is a play on words on the idiom "happy is as happy does". Like many idioms, it can be tough to explain, and can appear to break lot of rules of normal grammar.

Happy is as happy does.

Basically means

You make your own happiness by your actions.

In other words, you cannot expect to be happy unless you do something to bring your happiness about.

The Economist is taking the well-known idiom and tweaking it to (I presume) make a point that refers to the contents of the article. I'm going to guess and assume it means something like:

You are as happy as you are told to be.

I suspect the oldest form of this phrase is the proverb 'handsome is as handsome does', which has been used in various forms as far back as Chaucer. All the other versions are derivations of this original.

  • your definitition doesn't match my experience, not your 'oldest form' example. How does it fit to 'You make your own 'handsomeness' by your actions'? – Pureferret Feb 20 at 13:40
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    @Pureferret The link provided also disagrees it says 'handsome is ...' means "Good deeds are more important that good looks." – JimmyJames Feb 20 at 14:27
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    The phrase means different things depending on what the main word is, but always with the sense that 'actions are what matters'. So, no, it doesn't mean 'you make your own handsomeness', but it means 'you are as handsome as the "handsome" (ie good) deeds that you do'. – fred2 Feb 20 at 15:53
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    Grammatically, the as in this expression is a relative pronoun (if you have access to the OED, it’s sense 21a of as there), here used in an old-fashioned ‘doubly reversed’ type of phrase that’s actually a fused relative construction: Happy is as happy does → Happy is who happy does → Happy is who does happy → Happy is (s)he who does happy → (S)he who does happy is happy. (‘Doing happy’ then means to portray happiness in one’s doing.) – Janus Bahs Jacquet Feb 20 at 16:34
  • @JanusBahsJacquet I lost my access to OED a few years back, and I'm still in mourning. Great comment, once again illustrating the baroque levels of complexity that can be involved in even simple phrases. – fred2 Feb 20 at 16:39
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All right. So there is a line in the movie Forrest Gump that is "stupid is as stupid does". This expression means an intelligent person who does stupid things is still stupid. You are what you do.

Other variations include "beauty is as beauty does" , "ugly is as ugly does", and of course, "happy is as happy does" in our case.

  • Yeah. In the particular context of using something esoteric, like "stupid, pretty, handsome," etc, the actions make the correct impression on other people. "Pretty is as pretty does" means that someone's real beauty is determined by how one treats people. Good observation! – xizdaqrian Feb 20 at 16:05
  • @xizdaqrian Or we could be a little more reductive and say "pretty is as pretty does" means someone who is pretty has done something to make themselves pretty. Same for happy, stupid, ugly, smart, celebrity, or whatever other variation you might have encountered. I've always thought that the point of the adage was that you could attain or avoid the same status someone else has by adopting or avoiding their behavior. – EldritchWarlord Feb 20 at 17:08
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I think it stems from an action focused frame of reference. Ideas such as you are your thoughts or you become what you do.

Happy people do things that make them happy is my take on the saying under question... and then all the layers of cultural reference like Forest Gump which will make you grok Americans more if you have not watched it.

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