Monday, 10 February 2014

A silly poor ass

In Saturday's Times David Aaronovitch reviewed Alain de Botton's The News: A User's Manual He took a rather dim view of it. He put Alain de Botton in the Fotherington-Thomas school (that's my paraphrase, not a quote – but it seems to me quite an apt reference to Molesworth's school-mate, whose character may be gleaned from Molesworth's match report:

Acktually fotherington-tomas is worse than me he is goalie and spend his time skipping about he sa Hullo clouds hullo sky hullo sun etc when huge centre forward bearing down on him and SHOT whistles past his nos

Other Molesworth quotes here.

In his closing paragraph, Aaronovitch discussed  the evolution and changing meanings of the word silly. He traced it to the Old English gesælig. I imagine that, sitting smugly behind his paywall (and regular readers will already know how I feel about them) Mr Aaronovitch has access to the OED. But I have to make do with Etymonline:
 The word's considerable sense development moved from "happy" to "blessed" to "pious," to "innocent" (c.1200), to "harmless," to "pitiable" (late 13c.), "weak" (c.1300), to "feeble in mind, lacking in reason, foolish" (1570s). Further tendency toward "stunned, dazed as by a blow" (1886) in knocked silly, etc. Silly season in journalism slang is from 1861 (August and September, when newspapers compensate for a lack of hard news by filling up with trivial stories). 
The review, in its romp through the twists and turns of silly's meanings, says ' the era of Shakespeare the word "silly" already meant roughly what it does today.' Really? Shakespeare is a sort of etymological vacuum cleaner. People often use him as a marker buoy in the sea of meanings. Bu justt because he used the word in one sense (possibly a rarely used sense that his writing would help concretize), we can't assume it had  that sense generally at the time. I am pretty sure (no time for research at the moment) that he also used it in the 'lacking in reason' sense that Etymonline conveniently dates to the 1570s.

It is this 1570s sense,  that will be familiar to readers with a choral background, as it's used this way in Tomorrow Shall Be Me Dancing Day a carol set by various composers (but my money's on Garland's setting).
In a manger laid and wrapped, I was,
So very poor, this was my chance†,
Betwixt an ox and a silly poor ass...
Of this traditional carol ('probably based on a secular song' [and the Devil has all the best secular songs, or Carmina Burana as they might be called, but that's a digression we'll give only a passing wave to]) my old out-of-print [or OP as we used to say in my Grant and Cutler days,  mentioned here] Oxford Book of Carols says 'the text seems to go back earlier than the seventeenth century'. 'Earlier than the seventeenth century' would include the end of the sixteenth, which fits Etymonline's '1570s'. In Shakespeare's time, silly could mean 'lacking in reason'.

But what caught my eye in Etymonline was the German Selig,  which recalled another stalwart of the choral repertoire – the Deutsches Requiem:
Selig sind die Toten, 
die in dem Herren sterben
The sense here is more like 'blessed' (not the 'blessed with a photographic memory....' sort of 'blessed', but the two syllable blesséd: 'Blessed are the dead/faithful who...' is the way English versions of Revelation 14:13 puts it.

So silly's many meanings have included both blessed and foolish in a sort of polysemy to [ab]use the linguists' word (I added the ab- because the academic word is typically used to refer to many meanings at the same time) that will not be unfamiliar to lovers of words. See this for many other examples.

But my coach is about to turn into a pumpkin. (For coach read Adobe Acrobat 30-day Trial Version and for pumpkin read expires next Wednesday.)


Update 2014.02.22.12:00 – Added PS
† PS This is, of course, not the Boys' Own Paper sort of 'This was my chance', which might be followed by 'While his back was turned I quickly shook off my bonds and...'. It is an archaic way of saying (to use another archaic word that has become fossilized in a frase hecha) 'such was my lot'.

Update 2017.06.17.21:15 – Removed old footer.

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