Most of us have been called or have called others silly, daft, dumb, cretin or something similar in our lives. As much as we know the general meaning of these words, it is normal to not pay attention to the nuances of each insult. Much less know the origin of each of these words. But worry not: today we are going to show you all about insults.
First things first, where do insults come from? To insult in the sense of “verbally abuse, affront, assail with disrespect, offer an indignity to” comes from the 1610s. It has its origin in the French insulter “to wrong; reproach; triumph arrogantly over.” It comes directly from the Latin insultare “to assail, to make a sudden leap upon.” So humans have assaulted each other verbally for centuries and swear words have evolved, some have disappeared and others have been created, but some of them have not changed since their beginning.
Innocent but direct, silly is one of the most common insults in the English language, appropriate even for children. It does not always have very negative connotations, it can be used for loved ones in a caring and joking way.
The word “silly” comes from the Old English gesælig, which meant ‘happy, fortuitous, prosperous.’ It was related to sæl ‘happiness’, from Proto-Germanic *sæligas, German selig ‘blessed, happy, blissful,’ and Gothic sels ‘good, kindhearted’.
The word evolved from ‘happy’ to ‘blessed’, which became ‘pious’ and therefore ‘innocent’. This meaning carries on to ‘harmless’ and then transforms into the negative connotation of ‘pitiable’. This shift in perspective changed the course of the word from ‘happy and devoted’ to ‘weak’. Weak physically and then mentally, in the 1570s it took the current meaning of ‘feeble in mind, lacking in reason, foolish.’
Silly is an example of the phenomenon of words for innocent that take a second meaning of being credulous, naive, simple or foolish.
Similar to silly, “daft” is another word mainly used in the UK for someone weak in intelligence. It has a second meaning of ‘mad and insane.’
Its original meaning (‘mild, well-mannered’) comes from the Old English gedæfte “gentle, becoming,” from Proto-Germanic *gadaftjaz, according to Etymology.com. It deteriorated to ‘dull, awkward, uncouth, boorish’ through the idea of “humble”.
The evolution to the current meaning of ‘foolish, stupid or simple’ and ‘crazy’ is not clear, but it seems like it was influenced by the meaning of “daffe.” Daffe (now “daffy”) used to mean ‘halfwit, fool, idiot,’ and the similarities in writing might have meant they have a common origin or that they were mixed and their meaning influenced each other.
Dumb is another informal word for stupid and lacking intelligence, but also not requiring or resulting from intelligence (e.g.: dumb luck). The word “dumb” has been traced back to the Indo-European dheubh-, meaning ‘confusion, stupefaction, or dizziness.’
What is curious about this word is that, in Old English, “dumb” did not mean what it means currently. In Old English “dumb” meant ‘unable to speak, mute.’ It was the sole definition for the adjective, but another definition came along when the term appeared in ancient Germanic languages.
In Old High German “dumb” was spelled as tumb or tump, and it meant ‘stupid, speechless, or deaf.’ The English word “dumb” didn’t develop its stupid sense until the 19th century, due to the influence of the German dumm which meant ‘stupid.’ That is why both meanings exist in English, but we mainly use one. It is very important to note that nowadays, it is considered offensive to use dumb for someone unable to speak.
Did you know the origin of these insults? Let us know below!
Click here for the origin of more expressions in English.
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