global English

My English: In praise of silly

And so we come to the end of our United Kingdom English focus. Rowan Sawday (Dizraeli), who kicked everything off with his 21st Century Flux rap, wraps the month up with a post in answer to the question: What’s your English? Thank you to all guest authors – English, Irish, Scottish and Welsh– for interesting, entertaining and conversation-generating contributions. See you on the other side of the weekend and the start of Brazil English for February.



I realised my love for English when I moved to France. I was 21, in a new place, where every detail of my day had to be conducted in a language not my own, and I saw for the first time how much we are shaped by the words we speak. A French version of me began to form, and I found that my thoughts and feelings were funnelled in new ways. Living in twangy Southern French (the accent of Montpellier, where I stayed, is a million miles from the phlegmy gutterance of the North), I found a bounce and expressiveness in my attitude that was different from English. I gestured more when I spoke; I furrowed my brow in the Southern sun. I enjoyed it.

But there was something missing. For all its poetry and detail, the French language – for me – lacked one vital element: the word silly. This might seem a small thing, but the word silly is one of the most important in the English language. Strung between its two syllables is a universe of humour, playfulness, surreal possibility and rubber meanings. Birthed from the Old English root sǣliġ, meaning ‘blessed’, and growing through the muddled seely, meaning ‘innocent’, ‘poor’, ‘foolish’ and ‘fortunate’ all at once, silly encapsulates what to me is the most appropriate response to the mess of contradictions that is reality: fling off your clothes, and mud wrestle. Playing the role of Fool in the court of the king, it can also create a space for very serious satire and social commentary. Monty Python – the British comedy collective – took on fascism, the corruption of religion, the class system, bureaucracy … all the poisons of the modern world, and did so armed only with colossal silliness.

In Montpellier, I felt disarmed without silly: I sought out replacement words, finding a few that sidled in the same direction (the phrase n’importe quoi, for example, meaning ‘it doesn’t matter what’) but none that came close.

Returning to England after my year away, I dived headfirst back into my mother tongue, relishing its words with many meanings, and its meanings with many possible words. It struck me that the non-sense of English as an entire system could be summarised as silly, and I loved that fact: here was a language I could twist, jumble and reinvent. Because of the history of English, which began as a Germanic import and developed through colonisation, mutation, corruption and downright theft into a hybrid monster with a thousand tongues, it is – I think – uniquely flexible and playful.

Of course, I’m a native speaker: the language through which you grasp your first understandings will always be the one which gives you the most scope for expression, and English is by no means the only language capable of playfulness and multiplicity. I have heard French rappers and poets juggle their language in the most breathtaking ways. And I’m sure that, for a person coming to it from another language, English is full of gaping holes. A native Boro speaker from Northeastern India, for instance, might be astonished that we have no equivalent word for mokhrob, meaning ‘to express anger by a sideways glance’.

But poor foolish fortunate that I am, I love English, holes and all. As someone who works with words for a living, it’s a messy, colourful joy. And most of all, it’s a version of me with space for silly.

Calloo callay!

(Boro reference borrowed from Spoken Here, by Mark Abley (Arrow Books, 2003))

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  • Dear Dizraeli,

    Firstly, I would like to congratulate you for being an excellent poet performer. I was marvelled with your latest performances viewed on youtube.
    Now, I’d very much appreciate your brief explanation on whether we can use the English word “despise” as a meaning for “expressing anger by a sideways glance”…
    Many Thanks.

  • Now I realise how important this little word is. I’m going to highlight it in my Macmillan dictionary right now!

  • It’s amazing how the little words are the ones we miss when we’re using a different language. I spent some time living in Colombia, working with disadvantaged kids, and word I missed most – ‘cheeky’! There just wasn’t a word in Colombian Spanish that really captured the meaning of ‘cheeky’ in English. I spent hours one day explaining the idea of it to them, trying to find a suitable translation, but no-one could come up with anything. Such a shame – such a great little word!

  • I’m struggling to find an equivalent in Hungraian for the word naughty when communicating to my daughter that she’s doing something that’s not quite appreciated. Again, as with silly and cheeky the word naughty implies an element of ‘not quite seriousness’.

  • Totally agree with previous posters. In my trilingual family we speak a European patois (French, English, Italian) exactly for the reason that some words cannot be translated. I loved your performance on u-tube.

  • Very interesting indeed the article “My English-In praise of silly”.
    Well-done Dizraeli!

    Diana DORNER

  • We hardly use silly in Romanian, but when resident
    in England I used to hear and use it myself like
    on every opportunity.I like your points of view
    concerning a simple world with so many facets.
    Quite insightful your observations in this respect.

  • Living here in France I can think of other ‘missing’ words in French. I’m always amazed that they have no word for ‘cuddly’ or ‘icicle’ and what about ‘lap’ – they just don’t get the meaning of laptop!! The nearest is ‘genou’ or knee!!

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