On the Origin of Silly


I mentioned the other day that my wife and I try to be careful about the words we use around our kids. Not that we sound like sailors when we aren’t around them, but even some innocent words (like ‘stupid’) sound wrong coming from the mouths of our children. So we do a fair amount of language substitution.

One of our most popular substitute words is ‘Silly’.

“You’re just being silly,” I might say when I mean that someone is acting in a undesireable way. It doesn’t get much more G-rated than that.

But the origin of the word ‘Silly’ is even more innocent than its current meaning. In fact, one of the many meanings that silly has had over the years meant ‘innocent’.

It all started with Seely, which was synonymous with ‘happy’ back in the 1100’s. It soon took on baggage and shifted meaning from ‘happy’ to ‘pious’ to ‘innocent’ to ‘harmless’ before becoming associated with ‘pitiable’ in the 13th century. From there, it all went downhill. Silly soon meant ‘lacking in reason, feeble in mind, and foolish’. By the 1800’s, it could mean ‘stunned by a blow’ as in ‘knocked silly’.

So what started out as happiness eventually became evidence of a head-injury. I feel like there’s a lesson in there about pessimism choosing to believe that happy people must have something wrong with them, but I’ll leave that for another day.

Until next time, don’t worry, be silly.

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