There are some people who refer to today’s politicians as silly, fools, and buffoons. The etymologies of these words are described below.


The word “silly” has an interesting etymology and semantic change. “Silly” has its origins in the Proto-Indo-European “*sele-” meaning “of good mood; to favor” which then became “*sæligas” in Proto-Germanic and then to “gesælig” in Old English. The Old English “gesælig” meant “happy, fortuitous, prosperous.” With regard to semantic change, the meaning of “silly” moved from “happy” to “blessed” to “pious” to “innocent” (by 1200) and then to “harmless” to “pitiable” (in the late thirteenth century) and then, by the 1570s, to “feeble in mind, lacking in reason, foolish.”


The English noun “fool” comes from the Latin root “follies” that originally meant “bellows, leather bag.” In Vulgar Latin (vulgar meaning the language of the people, or street Latin) the word was used in the sense of “windbag or empty-headed.” In Old French, which was derived from Vulgar Latin, it became “fol” which had two basic meanings: (1) “madman, insane person, idiot, rogue, jester,” and (2) “blacksmith’s bellows.” The word entered into English in the late fourteenth century with the meaning of “jester, court clown.” In this early usage of “fool” it is difficult to tell if it is referring to an amusing lunatic or a professional entertainer.

From “fool” English also developed “fool’s gold” as a reference for iron pyrite in 1829; “fool’s paradise” referring to a state of illusory happiness in the mid-fifteenth century; and “foolosopher” emerged as an insult in 1549.

The verb “to fool” is first recorded in the 1590s. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries there was also the verb “to foolify.”


In the 1540s, “buffoon” referred to a type of pantomime dance and forty years later its meaning had changed to be synonymous with “clown.” Its origins are found in the Middle French “bouffon” and the Italian “bufone” meaning “jester” which comes from “buffare” meaning “to puff out the cheeks” which is considered a comic gesture.  

Originally posted to Cranky Grammarians on Sat Mar 29, 2014 at 08:27 AM PDT.

Also republished by History for Kossacks.

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