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words : Silly


ROY HATTERSLEY, the no-nonsense MP, has called his party's scheme of all-women shortlists "a silly idea" - a remark which, taken by itself, has no more intellectual content than you'd find in an exchange of compliments on an infant school playground, or at question time in the House. In making it he risked the fate of the musician Orpheus, who, you will remember, was torn limb from limb by maddened women. It would have been safer if he had said "simplistic", admittedly a much misused word, but I think it was what he meant: sexual equality is fine but achieving it needs a bit more thought.

Actually this would have been closer to the early meaning of silly. It used to be spelt seely, from the Old English for lucky. Originally seely meant blessed or holy, then otherworldly - unsophisticated, in fact. One can see how the idea progressed. Children and animals were often called seely or silly, not necessarily because they were thought unintelligent but because they were without guile, and therefore vulnerable. is almost a cliche-adjective for sheep in popular literature such as carols, and it could well be the changed meaning of the word that has helped give sheep a name for stupidity that they don't deserve.

St Paul, in a letter to St Timothy (King James version), talked about "silly women", thus apparently confirming his anti-feminist stance, but readers in 1611 probably took him to mean merely that the women were easily led astray, which is what the context suggests; so, though certainly patronising, it didn't sound as rude from the pen of St Paul as it might on the lips of Mr Hattersley. Anyway, the shift from "simple" to "simple-minded", which took centuries to happen, is complete - with the additional meaning of "frivolous" (as in hats and seasons) which is hardly the word for the Labour Party.

Nicholas Bagnall