Silly.

So I’m finally reading Jasper Fforde’s* Thursday Next book, Something Rotten when I realize that it’s a silly book. Not a big jump, there. But then I think, “What is silly?

Dictionary.com says this:

sil·ly
adj. sil·li·er, sil·li·est

  • Exhibiting a lack of wisdom or good sense; foolish. See Synonyms at foolish.
  • Lacking seriousness or responsibleness; frivolous: indulged in silly word play; silly pet names for each other.
  • Semiconscious; dazed: knocked silly by the impact.

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[Middle English seli, silli, blessed, innocent, hapless, from Old English gesælig, blessed.]
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silli·ly (sl-l) adv.
silli·ness n.

Nah. That’s not right.

So how do you define silliness? It has something to do with a gap between an ordinary, commonsense, expected meaning and a meaning that uses a normally commonsense, ordinary pattern inappropriately.

For example. The name “Thursday Next”: You could name your kid Thursday, and it would be odd, but not silly. “Thursday Smith.” “Thursday Jones.” But “Thursday Next” means “next week on Thursday.” It’s a commonsense, ordinary pattern used inappropriately, because a person’s name is meant to identify a person, not to indicate a period of time.

More examples. If you had a conversation in which you expected someone to respond rationally, and they did, but their responses had a pattern to them that did not add to the meaning of the responses, that would be silly. That is, if all the responses began with the letter B, that would be silly. If every statement was phrased as a question, that would be silly. If the responses rhymed, that would be silly.

Puns are silly. The joke, “A man walked into a bar. He said to the bartender, ‘Ouch!'” is silly. Lewis Carroll is silly — most of the details of his books are formed from a mathematical pattern, or in response to a current saying or poem of his day. Sexual innuendo is silly. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is silly. Blonde jokes are silly — the epitome of using an inappropriate pattern to responsd to a commonsense situation.

I treat silliness not as foolishness, but as a subset of humor. You have to see the underlying pattern to the inappropriate responses in order to find it funny, and the pattern has to be something that you haven’t tired of, but there you go.

More thoughts later…

*Welsh.