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!

Fun Etymology Tuesday – Like

Another Tuesday comes our way, and so does another FunEty! Before that, I hope that you’ll like that all our FunEty and our Patron Saints are now also available on the blog!

And speaking of like, that is our word for today!

This little word is extremely versatile and has multiple uses, for example as an adjective, a preposition, a noun, etc.

I suppose then that it is only appropriate that it is also of multiple origins.

Partly, like is a variant or alteration of another lexical item, ylike, from Old English gelic, meaning similar or identical. The Old English word can, however, be divided into two parts: the prefix ge- and the base líc.

The former could be used to denote quality or condition in words where the associative sense recognises something that makes the connection appropriate, convenient or based on similarity (like gecynd – gecynde, meaning nature – natural.

The latter, from Proto-Germanic *lîkom , meaning form or shape, likely referred to the body. Cognate developments might, however, suggest that it had some specific feature that denoted the dead body specifically! You see, in most other Germanic languages, the Proto-Germanic word has come to denote just that (for example Dutch lijk, German leiche, Danish lig, all meaning corpsecadaver or dead body).

Isn’t that interesting?

Now, let’s add a twist:

This word developed differently in the north and the south of England!

In the south, the normal development was lich(e), but in the north, the development was like. One hypothesis is that this might be due to a partial borrowing from Old Norse glikr. As I am sure that you remember, there were plenty of Vikings around in the north of England during the later Old English period, which could explain the differences in the development of this Old English word.

So there you have it – the somewhat convoluted development of the modern-day adjective (and plenty of other things) like!

(As a final note, this does not represent the development of the verb like, which, though undoubtedly related, comes to us from the Old English word lician.)

Fun Etymology Tuesday – Heresy

We’re back – and we’re even on time this week!

Today’s word: heresy!

From Old French heresie, eresie, this word came to English during the early 13th century and was once described by Samuel Johnson as “an opinion of private men different from that of the catholick and orthodox church”. But that’s not what it used to mean!

From Latin hæresis, meaning school of though or philosophical sect, the word came to Latin from Greek hairesis, meaning a taking or choosing for oneself, a choice, a deliberate plan, purpose, philosophical sect or school. This, in turn, care from haireisthai, meaning take or seize, middle voice of hairein, meaning to choose.

Here’s the fun part: did you know that this word may be a cognate of Hittite šaru and Welsh herw, meaning booty? We sure didn’t!

Now that you’ve got your Tuesday fun – a bit of important information for you: the HLC goes on vacation! Don’t worry – FunEty and Patron Saint will keep popping up in your feed but the blog will ease back a bit and you will get your linguistic treats once a month during July and August instead of every week! We’re sorry, but even linguists need vacation (actually, it’s because we all have an absolutely insane summer filled with work)!

Next post will appear next week, on Thursday 11th! Join us then for more linguistic facts!

Fun Etymology Tuesday – Tide

Another Tuesday means a new FunEty!

Today’s word is “tide”, referring to the rise and fall of the sea.

If you know any other Germanic languages, you’ll probably recognise the Old English word “tid”, from which “tide” hails. OE “tid” actually referred to a point in time (and could also refer to a period in time, a season, feast day or canonical hour), and, indeed the Scandinavian cognate “tid” for example still means “time”. From Proto-Germanic *tīdi-, from PIE *di-ti-, meaning meaning “division of time”, a suffixed form of *da-, meaning “to divide”.

The current meaning of the word, which surfaced around the 14th century, is likely from the notion of a fixed time, in this particular case the time of high water. This might be a native evolution or from Middle Low German “getide”. Interestingly, Old English appears to not have had a specific word for “tide”, using instead “flod” and “ebba” to refer to the rise and fall of the sea – a usage that strikes me as very likely cognates to modern-day Swedish “flod och ebb”, meaning much the same thing.

Fun Etymology Tuesday – Giddy

Tuesday! And you know, this particular Tuesday is a little bit better than other Tuesdays (if that’s possible), because today, this writer gets to go home from a long work trip (which has been lovely, but not quite as lovely as being with my husband back home). Anyway, that’s nice for you, but what’s your point, you ask? Well, I’m feeling rather giddy and figured that that would be a good word for today! So “giddy” it is!

From Old English “gidig”, a variant of “gydig”, from Germanic “gudo(m)”, this little word originally meant literally “possessed by a god” (I wonder which one I got!), which according to the OED was likely its primary sense. In Old English, it had developed to referring to the insane, mad, or stupid (starting to feel like I insulted myself) while, in Early Modern English (ca. 1560), we find the meaning “having a confused, swimming sensation”, perhaps comparable with what we mean when we say “dizzy” today. The meaning “elated” came about during the 1540s, so you can clearly see that there’s been a significant semantic change throughout the centuries for this Germanic word!

And that’s our Tuesday fun! I’ll be back on Thursday with a bit of an announcement for you all! (Aren’t you curious? Well, you’ll simply have to wait!)
Until then: have a lovely day, everybody!

Fun Etymology Tuesday – Tattoo

Tuesday! Boy, time flies.

Today’s word is “tattoo”!

From a Polynesian noun, like Tahitian and Samoan “tatau”, Marquesan “tatu”, meaning puncture or mark made on skin. The Tahitian word might be the most likely direct origin of the English word, as it was first attested in English in the writings of Captain James Cook in 1769, around the time when he was on a journey to watch Venus transit over the sun, a journey that took him from Great Britain to, you guessed it, Tahiti!

While tattoos are certainly quite popular today (even some of us here at the HLC boast a few), attitudes to them used to be totally different: in 1902, Century Dictionary described them as found on “uncivilised” people or as a sentence of punishment, but that’s a very different understanding than the one we find during the late 17th century, when the term “Jerusalem cross” could be used to indicate tattoos (specifically those on the arms of pilgrims to the Holy land).

That’s it for our Tuesday fun!

Fun Etymology Tuesday – Loophole

Tuesday! Isn’t it a marvellous day?
Have you ever been told to always read the fine print of a contract before signing it? Yes? Good! Because it is in that small text that you might find any loopholes in the deal you’re making, right? But where does that word come from? Let’s explore!

A compound from Middle English, this word consists of two parts: loop + hole. Let’s start with the latter.

Present-Day English “hole”, meaning something like a hollow place in an otherwise solid surface, is a Germanic word, found in Old English as “hol” with much the same meaning (it also has cognates in most Germanic languages: in Swedish, for example, you find “hål”), from Proto-Germanic *hulan, from PIE *kel, meaning to cover, conceal or save. Quite a long history there, but what about the first part of our word for today?

Well, “loop-“ comes from Middle English “loup(e)”, which actually referred to a narrow window or slit opening in a wall. You’ve probably seen these, in movies if nothing else, when there’s a massive battle going on, because these small windows were primarily for the protection of archers when shooting (though also for light and ventilation when there were no battles going on). This little word came to English around the beginning of the 14th century, probably from a continental Germanic source, like Middle Dutch “lupen”, meaning to lie in wait, watch or peer.

As is often the case, the modern meaning of the word is a later development, being recorded from around the 1660s.

And that’s our Tuesday fun!

Fun Etymology Tuesday – Lukewarm

Another Tuesday comes our way, and so does your regular FunEty!

Today’s word is “lukewarm”, meaning something that is neither hot or cold, but a bit tepid.

This little compound (of the adjective “luke”, meaning tepid, and the adjective “warm”, meaning… well, warm.), came to English around the late 14th century but that is about as much as the etymology will tell us. It’s origin is unknown, but two prominent hypotheses have been put forth:

1. It’s a borrowing from Middle Dutch or Old Frisian “leuk”, meaning tepid or weak


2. It’s an unexplained, unattested variant of the Old English word “hleowe”, an adverb meaning warm.

Both “leuk” and ”hleowe” find their origin in Proto-Germanic *khlewaz from PIE *kele-, meaning warm (it’s a bit hard to tell where the unknown form comes from).

Now, we’re a bit wary about explanations that include the word “unexplained”, yet, the OED tells us that it appears etymologically impossible to connect the first element of this compound with modern Dutch “leuk”, though it doesn’t expand very much on that so we’re not entirely sure on why that is so, and suggests instead a transformation from a (unattested) Old English verb *hlíewcian.

The OED entry doesn’t leave us any less wary of unexplained developments, though it should be kept in mind that it is certainly possible as only a limited number of Old English texts survive today and most of them are written in West Saxon.

Tell us what you think – borrowed or native (or perhaps a combination)?

Fun Etymology Tuesday – Pamphlet

Tuesday! Time for some etymology, don’t you think? Well, we do!

Today’s word is pamphlet!

This word for a small, unbound treatise comes to English from Anglo-Latin panfletus, a popular short form of Pamphilus, seu de Amore, which means “Pamphilus, or about Love”. Now, why would it be called that?! Well, you see, panfletus (or pamphilus) originally referred to one specific work: a Latin love poem called, you guessed it, “Pamphilus, seu de Amore”!

Very popular during the Middle Ages, the work was widely copied and circulated on its own. The name eventually underwent a semantic broadening, coming to refer to any brief work issued by itself without covers, which typically deals with current interests, during the 16th century (kind of like how “Hoover” came to refer to many different kinds of vacuum cleaners, not just the vacuum cleaners by the brand Hoover).

The word pamphilus is actually also about love: from Greek pamphilos, meaning “loved by all”, from pan-, “all”, and philos, “loving, dear”.

So go out there and love all those little pamphlets! It is all there in the name!

Fun Etymology Tuesday – Curfew

It’s certainly late again! Today, though, it’s kinda appropriate, because today’s word is curfew!

While today, this word means a certain time when movement is restricted somehow – usually the time a kid has to be home from the really fun thing that they definitely wanted to stay longer at (but occasionally something more serious like curfew during wars, threats to society, or serious emergencies) – this word used to refer to something quite important: the time when hearths should be banked and lights extinguished to prevent unattended fires during the night! As you can probably imagine, a fire could be catastrophic in a village or a town during the Middle Ages (which it would be today too, of course, but we tend to not use fire as much in our daily lives) and banking the fires was likely a very important part of someone’s nightly routine.

This meaning is actually reflected in the word’s etymology: from Anglo-French coeverfu from Old French cuevrefeu, meaning literally “cover fire”! When it came to English, during the early 14th century, it was curfeu and referred to a specific signal, like a ringing bell, at a fixed hour, a decent reminder to cover the fire up and not burn the entire neighbourhood down. A somewhat important thing to do, wouldn’t you say?

That’s it for today! We’ll be back with more etymological fun next week! See you then!