Fun Etymology Tuesday – Silly

Yet another Tuesday, and, as always, here is your Fun Etymology!

Today’s word is silly!

Originally a variant of seely, this West Germanic word began its journey in English as Old English *sǽlig. Reminder: the asterisk before the word indicates that this word has not actually been found in Old English. However, we can find the word gesǽlig and the adverb séliglíce, which indicates the existence of *sǽlig.

Old English *sǽlig appears to come from Germanic *sǣligo-, from *sǣli-z, meaning luck or happiness. The English word finds cognates in Frisian (salig/sillich), Dutch (zalig), German (selig). Interestingly, though, they don’t mean at all the same thing as silly does in English.

In each of the languages that we find cognates, the word actually means something like blessed or blissful. This meaning that actually used to be quite common for English silly as well.

During the 16th and 17th centuries, English silly commonly referred to someone or something good or holy; a semantic shift has definitely occurred here and its current meaning starts popping up in texts from the mid-16th century. But that is not the only shift that has occurred for silly.

How exactly did we get from seely to silly?

Well, we had a shortening of the vowel. But there was a separate change here: long /e/ had already started (or perhaps was well underway) to change to something approaching /i:/ through the Great Vowel Shift – and, in the end, we got /ˈsɪli/ from (something like) /ˈse:li/.

And that’s our Tuesday fun!

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