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The Ministry of Silly Words

This reference will be lost on those who were not Monty Python fans. For these tragically deprived readers: Monty Python did a sketch called "The Ministry of Silly Walks" in which the British government gave out grants to people who could come in and display an extremely silly walk, so they could develop their silly walk further.

Sadly, I have no grants to give out for the development of silly words, and anyway, it's in the context of human interaction and culture that words develop. Why silly words? Some words just sound silly, at least to my ear. I came across the word scallywag recently and wondered where it came from. Let's use it in a sentence.

That lackadaisical scallywag does his work in a haphazard, slapdash way, just throwing flotsam and jetsam together willy-nilly.

These are very silly words, indeed. Have they no dignity? Strangely (or perhaps not) they are rather alliterative, too. Let's chinwag about this, shall we? But first, having said "chinwag," we must of course trace its origin. As well as the obvious idea that someone talking is wagging his or her chin, the (perhaps apocryphal) origin story is this. In Victorian times, in the Welsh Village of Llangollen, the lady who ran a village pub, wanting to sell more ale, would go around to her customers with a jug of ale saying “chi'n wag” (you're empty) and top up their glasses.


Lackadaisical, according to the Merriam Webster Dictionary, means "lacking enthusiasm and determination; carelessly lazy." Tracing this word back shows an interesting history. In a 1768 travelogue by Laurence Stern, it appears as "lack-adaysical," a reference to "lackaday" (also written as lack a day), which in the 17th and 18th centuries was used to express regret or deprecation, and which itself came from "alack the day." We know the word "alack," which we sometimes pair with "alas" to express regret in a fancy English kind of way.

The Oxford Dictionary gives two meanings for scallywag. The first, "a person who behaves badly but in an amusingly mischievous rather than harmful way; a rascal," is the definition most of us know. The second was not known to me: "a white Southerner who collaborated with northern Republicans after the Civil War, often for personal profit." The term was used derisively by white Southern Democrats. In the 1800's it meant "a disreputable fellow, good-for-nothing, a blackguard." In the 1600's it was used to refer to low-grade farm animals. "Scallywag" has come up in the world over the last 400 years.

The hap in haphazard comes from an old English word that means "happening," as well as "chance or fortune," (think of "happenstance") and derives from the old Norse word happ, meaning "good luck." Hazard also has its own connotations of luck: while it now commonly refers to something that presents danger, somewhere in the mists of time it referred to a dice game, the word derived from the Arabic al-zahr, meaning "the die." The word haphazard itself first entered English in the early 1600's as a noun meaning chance, and shortly afterward became the adjective we use today.

Slapdash means something done in a lazy, careless way, and is clearly a combination of slap, which in the late 1600's was slappen, "to strike or smack with the open hand," and in the 1800's as "to put into place." Dash goes back as far as 1300, and at that time carried a meaning curiously similar to slap - "strike suddenly and violently," as well as "move quickly, rush violently." It probably comes from the Swedish daska, to beat or strike. It was also seen by the 1700's as to do something hurriedly, as in "dash off," which we still say today. In the 1800's "dash" was also a mild expletive, an alternative to damn, as in, "Oh, dash!"

In nautical terms, flotsam, from the French, "floter," to float, is debris in the water that was not deliberately thrown overboard, but results from a shipwreck. Jetsam, from the French "jeter," to throw, describes debris that was deliberately thrown overboard by the crew of a ship in distress to lighten the ship's load. These words, with these meanings, go back to the 15th century, and are still used in maritime law today. Metaphorically, the pair also denotes a collection of odds and ends (and since we're doing this – odds and ends date from the mid-1500's term "odd ends" meaning short leftovers from bolts of cloth).

So far we have words rooted in Welsh, Norse, French, Swedish, Arabic, maritime law and old English, showing us once again how intercultural interaction and daily life are the engines that feed constantly changing human language.

Willy nilly comes from the obsolete phrase, found as early as 1600, will I, nill I, or "I am willing, I am unwilling." The original definition, "whether one likes it or not," gradually evolved into today's meaning. Along the way, variations on willy-nilly included "nilly-willy," "willing, nilling," and even "William nilliam."

In conclusion, my erudite friends, while researching these silly words, I came upon some Shakespearian insults containing silly words, and these I want to share with you.

From All's Well That Ends Well: "You scullion! You rampallian! You fustilarian! I’ll tickle your catastrophe!" And ooh, how about this one, from Henry IV? "Thou leathern-jerkin, crystal-button, knot-pated, agatering, puke-stocking, caddis-garter, smooth-tongue, Spanish pouch!" We don’t even have to know what all those words mean to know how deeply insulting they are. We should reintroduce these insults. That would flabbergast the insultee and cause quite a hullaballoo!

Till next time, my friends.

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May 10, 2023

Thanks Dvora! I loved reading this and learned so many new words!! I first came across Willy Nilly when I was visiting Greece with my friend Will. We both found it very funny :)

Replying to

Thank you, dear Nili (Wili Nili?)

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