adjective, sil·li·er, sil·li·est.
noun, plural sil·lies.
DO YOU KNOW THIS VOCABULARY FROM "THE HANDMAID'S TALE"?
Origin of silly
SYNONYMS FOR silly
OTHER WORDS FROM sillysil·li·ly, adverbsil·li·ness, nounun·sil·ly, adjective
Words nearby silly
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
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
It was sexy, silly, and—in those relatively modest times—sensational.Happy 20th Birthday, Liz Hurley’s Safety-Pin Dress|Tim Teeman|December 12, 2014|DAILY BEAST
Few questions, no matter how fun and silly, go by without circling back to their accomplishments or future projects.How the Property Brothers Became Your Mom’s Favorite TV Stars|Kevin Fallon|November 25, 2014|DAILY BEAST
The 1996 filing (which you can check out here) was, naturally, as silly and frivolous as the boycott push that came before it.When the Religious Right Attacked ‘The Little Mermaid’|Asawin Suebsaeng|November 20, 2014|DAILY BEAST
The other one is silly and perhaps because of that even more cringe-worthy.
There are some in the house and neighbourhood who are silly enough as it is.A Book of Ghosts|Sabine Baring-Gould
In the same way Mr. Philip can blether to his silly heart's content and he'll never prove that I'm a bold girl.The Judge|Rebecca West
Josh saw them starting toward him as if under the impression that he would be silly enough to await their coming.The Big Five Motorcycle Boys on the Battle Line|Ralph Marlow
Graham promptly answered: "Yes, silly—she'll wear goatskin—and she'll yodel."Highacres|Jane Abbott
It will depend on whether my silly husband wants to stay with his wretch of a baby.Alice Sit-By-The-Fire|J. M. Barrie