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Silly Words

September 23, 2011

We all know words that have changed meaning over time. One example is ‘gay’; changing from merry/happy to homosexual. Here’s a few others:

Awful: Use to mean worthy of respect or fear; Awe-inspiring. Now it means something terrible.

Girl: Use to mean young child of any gender.

Wife: The word ‘wife’ originally meant ‘woman’ and was not connected to marriage. One example of the original meaning being preserved is found in the word ‘midwife’. Which just meant ‘with-woman’

The 80’s slang has lots of words that are used in a completely different meaning. Some that come to mind are, ‘wicked’, ‘radical’, ‘righteous’, which would be used to say something is cool or interesting.

The last word I wanted to mention that underwent a lot of changes is the word ‘silly’. I got this from listening to an audio lectures set on the History of the English language by professor – Seth Lerer. At one point he mentioned how this word continued to shift through the centuries morphing in meaning as it went. I paraphrase him with the help of THIS site:

The word ‘Silly’ originally meant ‘blessed’. If a person is blessed by God it would imply that he is pious. Gradually the word took on the meaning ‘pious’. Then by the year 1200 the meaning shifted to ‘innocent’. A pious man surely would be the most innocent man – he would do no wrong. An innocent man is also a ‘harmless’ man.  Silly at around 1280 came to signify those that pose no harm, usually beggars and other poor folk. From there silly transitioned to ‘pitiable’.  By the 1300’s someone to pity is someone that is weak and frail, thus silly becomes ‘weak’. Being physically weak is not the only weakness; “feeble in mind, lacking in reason, foolish” (1576). So by the close of the 16th century silly came to mean basically how we use the term today. Someone who is lacking sense. But thinking about it, I tend to use the word myself to imply someone/something is humorous. “that was a silly situation” or “haha you are being silly” – Perhaps another change?

Final word

I hear people sometimes rile against how words lose meaning, and are used incorrectly because the original meaning is different. I even read that some people try their best to preserve some sort of snapshot of the English language in which all words remain static and frown upon the introduction of any new words. I think these people are fighting a losing battle; language is fluid and evolves over time branching and changing. Did you know that English and German are closely related languages? English derives from Germanic people who spoke a proto-Germanic/English type of language around 2 millennia ago. Eventually one branch of that proto language became Old English, which is nearly impossible to read or understand by modern English speaking people, & it sounded more like German [See Cædmon’s Hymn or Beowulf]. That slowly transitioned to Middle English [Canterbury Tales] , followed by Early Modern (Shakespeare and King James Bible) and finally Modern English.

So in conclusion I believe it’s silly to attempt to stop words changing, it won’t work, embrace it and create new words.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. Alen permalink
    September 25, 2011 2:23 pm

    Thanks for the post, quite enjoyed it 🙂

    • September 25, 2011 2:38 pm

      glad you enjoyed it. I like the topic my self a lot. Especially finding out where some words come from.

      • Alen permalink
        September 25, 2011 6:18 pm

        Linguistics and Etymology are fields to which I pay a lot of attention. I think you make an excellent point with regards to the “loss of meaning” of words. Frankly, we are in a constantly changing world and language is no different. It’s merely a value judgement to associate change with degradation or improvement.

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