Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Wordplay - silly

The word silly has changed its meaning over the centuries. It is derived from the old English word seely meaning blessed or happy. By the eighteenth century its meaning had changed significantly. Samuel Johnson’s dictionary 3rd edition published 1766 defines silly as:-

  1. Harmless; innocent; inoffensive; plain; artless.
  2. Weak; helpless.
  3. Foolish; witless

Fifty years later, Jane Austen used the word in its modern sense in her novel Persuasion. She used this one word to convey a good deal of information about a character, Sir Walter Elliot. Through that one word we immediately know something of the man – well before Austen chooses to enlarge his character.

“Three girls, the two eldest sixteen and fourteen, was an awful legacy for a mother to bequeath, an awful charge rather, to confide to the authority and guidance of a conceited, silly father.”
Jane Austen – Persuasion’

Still a good word for modern times I'd say. 'Silly' is a quiet, not overly offensive word, perfectly equal to the task of conveying a decent load of gentle contempt for those many inanities we encounter in daily life. So well fitted to the absurdities of  too many social and political trends.

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