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Five everyday adjectives with no obvious root

Often, it’s easy to make a noun into an adjective in English simply by adding a ‘–y’ suffix to it, although you often need to double the final letter or snip an ‘e’ off the end. Examples could include something offering plenty of fun being ‘funny’, and anything rich in taste being ‘tasty’.

This might lead you to think that you can simply take any adjective ending with ‘y’, remove the suffix and find the noun from which it was formed, but  it’s not always quite that easy. Below are five familiar adjectives with origins that might not be immediately apparent:

Happy

Pharrell Williams has spent much of the last few months informing us of how happy he is, but what does he mean? Is he a man filled with ‘hap’?

In this instance, yes he is. The Middle English word ‘hap’ still appears in dictionaries today, though it’s rarely used. Developed from the Old Norse ‘happ’, it refers more to luck and chance than a feeling of being content and satisfied. The phrase ‘happy-go-lucky’, therefore, takes two terms that originally meant the same thing to create a new adjective of its own.

Silly

While ‘happy’ might be explainable, what about ‘silly’? If we call a foolish person ‘silly’, are we comparing them to a windowsill? It seems harsh to associate a perfectly adequate home fitting with an absence of common sense.

Thankfully, that’s not what we’re doing with the word ‘silly’. It comes from the Old English word ‘sæl’, meaning ‘happiness’, and has taken a variety of spellings over the years. With ‘silly’ originally meaning ‘happy’, and ‘happy’ meaning ‘lucky’, this is already proving to be an interesting example of the way word meanings change over time.

Naughty

Bad behaviour, especially among children, is often referred to as ‘naughtiness’, but are its perpetrators committing ‘naught’?

The origin of this one is more obvious than it might seem. Naughty people might be thought of as being worthless, or having nothing about them. In the late 14th Century, the term ‘naugti’ came into use to describe people in need and those who had nothing. This gradually extended to morals, so ‘naughtiness’ is the quality of having ‘naught’ or ‘nought’, as we normally spell it today.

Ugly

‘Ugly’ is one of those words that’s almost onomatopoeic. The plosive ‘g’ in the middle of it gives it an unattractive sound, and we might say ‘urgh’ at something that repulses us, but does it have any more substance to it than that?

It’s actually another word of Old Norse origin, with ‘ugg’ meaning ‘fear’. In Middle English, ‘uglike’ was often the adjective of choice to describe situations of terror and dread.

Ready

This is an interesting one, because we normally use it as an adjective today, but it was originally a verb. Of course, it can still take a verb form, as in ‘to ready yourself for a challenge’, but it’s usually describing a state, as in ‘I am ready for it’, or ‘ready access to funds’.

‘Ræde’ was an Old English word of Germanic origin, meaning ‘to arrange or prepare’. Over time, the verb developed an adjectival meaning, and can also be a slang term for money, usually used in the plural form.

So, next time you use these ordinary words, have a think about the way they’ve developed over time, along with what it says about the diverse history, and often frustrating inconsistency, of the language we use.

John is every inch the wordsmith and loves a game of Scrabble above all else. With experience writing for newspapers, John’s time at university was spent studying Creative Writing – something which comes across in his love of the pun.

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