Sometimes the simplest words have the most interesting stories to tell. After reading through some of the words here, Susan, one of my workout buddies, suggested I look into the history of the word “silly.”
My first thought, probably because I’m a wise-ass, was “That’s just silly. We all know what it means.” Boy, was I ever wrong! Sure, we know what “silly” means today – exhibiting a lack of wisdom or good sense, foolish or frivolous– but the meaning of the word has changed dramatically and repeatedly over several hundred years.
How far back should we go? The PIE (Proto-Indo-European) root “sele-” meant “of good mood; to favor.” That led to the Old English word “gesǣlig” which meant “happy,” and as the word moved into other languages, “happy” was the most common definition for “silly.” Versions of the word in the Old Saxon, Middle Dutch and High German languages eventually gave way to “selig” in German, which changed the meaning from “happy” to “blessed, touched by God.” The Virgin Mary, in some texts, was described as silly (or “cely,” or “seely”).
Over time, “blessed” gave way to “pious” and then to “innocent” and about a hundred years later to “pitiable, deserving of compassion, weak, helpless.” I suppose you can see the jump from innocent to weak. It took another few hundred years, until the 1570’s, to get from weakness to the meaning of “feeble of mind, showing a lack of reason or good sense, foolish.” It took another three hundred years after that to get to the alternate meaning of “stunned or dazed,” as in “I smacked him so hard his children were knocked silly.”
It will be interesting to see how the meaning changes over the next few hundred years. One of you silly buggers can make it a project for your children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. I won’t be around to see it, of course. That would just be silly.
Important note!! Blatant self-promotion!! Speaking of silly, how silly is this? My “Word Wide Web” blog (that’s the official name of this travesty) has been nominated for the Macmillan Dictionary “Love English” awards. If you’d like to vote for me – and I hope you will – you can click here. Oh, and please note: on the main page where they include all the nominees (you can just ignore them, right?), my blog is listed as The World Wide Web. The actual voting page has it right, The Word Wide Web. Thanks!