silly

[ sil-ee ]
/ ˈsɪl i /

adjective, sil·li·er, sil·li·est.

noun, plural sil·lies.

Informal. a silly or foolish person: Don't be such a silly.

Origin of silly

1375–1425; earlier sylie, sillie foolish, feeble-minded, simple, pitiful; late Middle English syly, variant of sely seely

SYNONYMS FOR silly

1 witless, senseless, dull-witted, dim-witted. See foolish.
2 inane, asinine, nonsensical, preposterous.

OTHER WORDS FROM silly

sil·li·ly, adverbsil·li·ness, nounun·sil·ly, adjective
Dictionary.com Unabridged Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2020

BEHIND THE WORD

Where does silly come from?

You have probably heard someone say that language is constantly changing. We are definitely guilty of saying that here at Dictionary.com. But what does that mean exactly? Well, the story of the word silly is one clear—and fascinating—illustration.

Languages change in many ways. The sounds and forms of a language can morph. The underlying structures of a language can shift. New words are created. Old words die out. And as we see in the case of silly, the meaning of words can develop in some remarkable ways.

Today, we generally use the word silly to describe something as “foolish.” Something silly can be amusing, as when kids make silly faces or play silly games. Something silly can also be, more dismissively, stupid. For example: The politician’s promises were nothing but silly pipedreams.  

But care to guess what the original sense of silly was? “Blessed.” We’re not being silly. Among the oldest recorded senses of silly—or, more accurately, the word that became our modern word silly—was “spiritually blessed.” Those senses are recorded in the early 1200s. So how did we get to “foolish”?

Dig deeper

Silly ultimately comes from the Old English (c.450–c1150) word gesǣlig, meaning “happy, blessed.” Talk about language change! Let’s break this gesǣlig down. That ge- is an Old English prefix that was effectively lost. That –ig became y, which is all over English today, as in juicy or dreamy. And sǣl meant “happiness.”

During Middle English (c1150–1475), this gesǣlig developed into new forms (see our entry at the archaic word seely) and many new senses. The word acquired the senses of “holy, innocent, helpless,” then “pitiable” and “insignificant,” then “simple” and “ignorant.” By the mid- to late 1500s, silly had gained the meaning of “lacking good sense, foolish, irrational, ridiculous.”

It’s hard to say why, exactly, but there may be something of a through-line in the incredible sense development of silly. Something “happy” can be considered “favored by God.” Something “favored by God” can be considered “holy,” and so “innocent,” which may be said of a small animal or child who is “harmless” or “defenseless.” (Are you following us so far?) And if you can’t protect yourself or you lack power, you might be considered “worthless” or “miserable”—and so silly apparently jumps to “foolish.”

Did you know ... ?

Like silly, many other familiar words don’t mean today what they meant centuries ago. Explore the origins of the following words for some more amazing examples of change in the English language:

  • awful (literally “full of awe”)
  • bully (originally meaning “sweetheart”)
  • nice (“stupid” in Middle English)

Still having a hard time believing all these changes? Look to slang, which often flips something negative into a positive, as in bad or sick (“excellent”). Also consider all the ways digital technology has radically expanded the original meanings of words, such as tweet and viral.

Example sentences from the Web for silly

British Dictionary definitions for silly

silly
/ (ˈsɪlɪ) /

adjective -lier or -liest

noun

(modifier) cricket (of a fielding position) near the batsman's wicketsilly mid-on
Also called: silly-billy plural -lies informal a foolish person

Derived forms of silly

silliness, noun

Word Origin for silly

C15 (in the sense: pitiable, hence the later senses: foolish): from Old English sǣlig (unattested) happy, from sǣl happiness; related to Gothic sēls good
Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged 2012 Digital Edition © William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd. 1979, 1986 © HarperCollins Publishers 1998, 2000, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2012