If you look up silly in the dictionary today, you come across a couple definitions.

1 a: exhibiting or indicative of a lack of common sense or sound judgment
   b: weak in intellect
   c: playfully lighthearted and amusing
   d: trifling, frivolous
2: being stunned or dazed

Those all match the uses I know I’ve seen for the word, right? And it’s a word I’ve used a lot when my kids were younger for when they were acting goofy. Silly is a word we often said with laughter, with joy. It’s a fun word.

And I had no idea that it began life meaning something rather different.

In Middle English, the word was spelled seely, and it was taken from the Old English equivalent that meant “happy, fortuitous, prosperous.” The Old English came in turn from the Old German selig, which means “blessed, happy, blissful.”

The fact that the pronunciation, and hence the spelling, changed is no great surprise–that long double E was shortened and changed to an I in either speech or spelling or both in all sorts of words. But the progression of the meaning is fascinating.

The journey went something like this. From “happy” it moved into “blessed.” But “blessed” was used primarily of religious giftings, so silly began to mean “pious” or “innocent” around 1200. As with many other words that had something to do with “innocent,” by the end of the century, it could mean “harmless”…and from there, it shifted to “pitiable” and “weak.” Throughout the 1400s and 1500s, it evolved into “feeble in mind, foolish, lacking reason.”

Of course, we know that innocence does not mean foolish…but all too often, we equate the two.

By the mid-to-late 1800s, the idea of being knocked silly, as in “dazed or stunned by a blow” entered the picture. But just a bit before that, in 1858, we also a see that connection to childhood things that I associate the word with–“a silly person” was one who wrote for or entertained children (how fun is that?).

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