In a word: silly

The Baltimore Sun

Each week The Sun's John McIntyre presents a relatively obscure but evocative word with which you may not be familiar, another brick to add to the wall of your vocabulary. This week's word: 


You think you know an old familiar friend, and then you discover that there is a history of which you were unaware.

You may think that you know words, too, and expect them to have clear identities. But words, like people, can have complicated pasts, altering their identities over time in what is called semantic drift. 

You think that silly means "foolish" or "unserious," as indeed it does. But the citations in the Oxford English Dictionary show a long, long history of drift. 

Silly once meant "pious" or "holy," a variant of seely, "happy," "blissful," "spiritually blessed." From 1598: "Sindrie vther orisonis, sic as of Sanct Johne, and of the thrie sillie brethrene."

It once meant "weak," vulnerable," or "incapacitated." From 1564: "The poore cillie Mouse, crept out of her small caue ... thinkyng no harme." Or George Hervert's "Thou onely art The mightie God, but I a sillie worm."

It has meant "trifling" or "insignificant." From Mandeville's Aesop (1704): "Let me grow bigger, throw me in. Some two Year hence you'll catch m' again ... now I'm such a silly Fish, A hundred would not make a Dish."

It has meant "provoking sympathy. From 1764: " Is this thy pastime, O Nature, to put such tricks upon a silly creature?"

It has meant "simple," "rustic," "unsophisticated," "ignorant." From Milton (1645): "Perhaps their loves, or els their sheep, Was all that did their silly thoughts so busie keep."

In our time, "foolish," "thoughtless," "frivolous." From 1988: "A fight in a pub that had simply started. Some silly bugger thinking he was John Wayne probably."

Or "comical." From Monty Python (1970): "Well sir, I have a silly walk and I'd like to obtain a Government grant to help me develop it."

Or "carrying out an action to an extreme degree." From 1898: "He says owners can now stuff dogs silly without ruining their digestions." 

Or of a number or quantity, "absurdly large." From 2011: "I don't have any qualms about spending silly amounts of money on clothes for my gigs."

And that's only silly as an adjective. 




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