adjective, sil·li·er, sil·li·est.
noun, plural sil·lies.
SYNONYMS FOR silly
VIDEO FOR SILLY
WATCH NOW: Is "Silly" A Positive Or Negative Word?
Silly means "weak-minded or lacking good sense; stupid or foolish: a silly writer," or "absurd; ridiculous; irrational: a silly idea," or "stunned; dazed." But, did it always mean these things? Why does everyone think it's such an endearing word?
QUIZ YOURSELF ON "WAS" VS. "WERE"!
Origin of silly
OTHER WORDS FROM sillysil·li·ly, adverbsil·li·ness, nounun·sil·ly, adjective
Words nearby silly
WHEN TO USE
What are other ways to say silly?
The adjective silly describes behavior or people that lack good sense, or things that are absurd or irrational. Do you know when to use silly, fatuous, foolish, inane, stupid, and asinine? Find out on Thesaurus.com.
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”?
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
Claiming that people with protruding ears were naturally weak-willed, for example, would seem plain silly.Gender Is What You Make of It - Issue 88: Love & Sex|Charles King|August 5, 2020|Nautilus
Well, back in the early 1200s, the original sense of silly was “blessed” or, more accurately, “spiritually blessed.”
That may sound a bit silly, but often we’re in a culture where people think a scientist or mathematician has to be the crazy person locked up in a room working by ourselves.Lack of diversity in his field has troubled this mathematician|Esther Landhuis|April 14, 2020|Science News For Students
Sometimes my friends ask questions that they’re afraid are silly.Weight lifting is this planetary scientist’s pastime|Bryn Nelson|March 10, 2020|Science News For Students
I suspect when we look back in 100 years, or maybe even 50 years, we’ll be astonished at how silly many of the ideas we currently hold near and dear to our hearts are actually wrong.5 Psychology Terms You’re Probably Misusing (Ep. 334 Rebroadcast)|Stephen J. Dubner|January 9, 2020|Freakonomics
Forget those silly “games played with the ball”; they are far “too violent for the body and stamp no character on the mind.”
Aside from reaching an international audience, leaving Oz had another benefit—no more silly intrusions into her privacy.
It is loathed by some critics who find it patronizing, silly, and superficial.'The Newsroom' Ended As It Began: Weird, Controversial, and Noble|Kevin Fallon|December 15, 2014|DAILY BEAST
So, happy 20th birthday to this proudly silly fashion classic.
It was sexy, silly, and—in those relatively modest times—sensational.
If he would take her a little more seriously—it 's an immense pity he married her because she was silly!Confidence|Henry James
I wonder why wise men choose silly wives always, she added consciously, playing with the reins.Tessa Wadsworth's Discipline|Jennie M. Drinkwater
I just sit there, knocked plumb silly, almost, and looked at a big rose in the carpet.Alec Lloyd, Cowpuncher|Eleanor Gates
Not only good taste, but health is often sacrificed to the silly error of dressing in the extreme of fashion.The Ladies' Book of Etiquette, and Manual of Politeness|Florence Hartley
Think of carelessly carrying a hundred dollars in a silly purse like that!The Girls of Central High on the Stage|Gertrude W. Morrison