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The meaning and origin of the expression: 'Silly' phrases

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'Silly' phrases

Phrases that contain the word 'silly'

I have been watching the 30th cricket Test series between England and India and musing about the oddly named field positions 'Silly mid-on', 'Silly point' etc. I've watched enough cricket to know that these are positions close to the batsman, but wondered why they are labelled 'silly' and whether there might be an archaic 'near to' meaning of the word. As it turns out, there isn't. 'Silly' in this context means what we normally mean by the word, that is, 'foolish or empty-headed'. Anyone who has been hit on the knee (or elsewhere) by a cricket ball will understand that standing about six feet away from the batsman is just plain silly.

'Silly' may never have meant 'near to' but it did take something of a journey to get to its present meaning. In the 15th century, when the word first began to be used in Middle English it meant 'deserving of pity, compassion, or sympathy'. A 'sylyman' wasn't stupid, just unfortunate. Into the 16th century and into modern English and the meaning migrated to mean 'weak, feeble, insignificant'. The naturalist John Maplet, in the natural history A Greene Forest, 1567, referred to a hedgerow bird like a sparrow as:

A smal sillie Bird

Later that century 'silly' began to be used with its current meaning. In the English/Italian dictionary Worlde of Wordes, 1598, the Italian linguist John Florio described the Italian word for idiot as:

A sillie Iohn [man], a gull, a noddie.

I'm not sure what it says about us but there is a large number of words in English that denote stupidity. 'Silly', perhaps because it conveys a form of good-humoured foolishness, appears to be a particular favourite amongst the coiners of phrases. Here are a few, with their derivations:

Silly Season

The months of August and September, when newspapers make up for the lack of real news by publishing articles on trivial topics. This expression is older than one might think. The US magazine The Saturday Review was amongst the first to make use of it, in July 1861:

We have, however, observed this year very strong symptoms of the Silly Season of 1861 setting in a month or two before its time.

Ask a silly question...

... and you will get a silly answer, of course. This appears to be an American phrase. The first mention that I can find of it in print is from the Minnesota newspaper The Brainerd Daily Dispatch, Tuesday, April, 1945:

If you want to ask a silly question and get a silly answer, just ask Mona Roth whom she refers to as El Dorado.

If any US readers can help me out as to who Mona Roth was or what that citation is all about, please do.

Play silly buggers

The esteemed lexicographer Eric Partridge both defined and dated this British slang expression in the 1961 edition of the Dictionary of Slang:

Silly buggers, play, to indulge in provocative horse-play; hence, to feign stupidity: low: since ca. 1920.

As is usually the case with Partridge, he gives no supporting evidence for the date and I can't find any actual examples of the phrase in print before the 1960s, even in its bowdlerised form of 'play silly beggers'.

Silly Billy

It isn't often the case that a name used in a phrase refers to a real person, but this one does. Silly Billy was the 18th century nobleman Prince William Frederick, the second Duke of Gloucester and Edinburgh. The diarist Joseph Romilly wrote of him in Romilly's Cambridge Diary, 1834:

He was in a towering passion for a minute but soon got into a good humour by laughing at the D. of Gloster. "Did you see silly Billy squirted on last night? it was worth £5."

Silly BillyWhat the Duke did to earn the nickname I'm not entirely sure, although we can get a glimpse of his character from a line in his biography - "He was an enthusiastic and brave, if not terribly professional, soldier... renowned for his lack of intelligence". Appearances can be deceptive but in all the paintings of him the eponymous Duke doesn't look to be the sharpest knife in the box. It would be fitting if the squirting referred to in the above quote was done with Silly String. Sadly not, that was patented in the USA 1970.