August 1, 2013

Case File #013.08.01: FOOL

The ultimate source of the word fool is the Latin follis, which means “a pair of bellows” or “an inflated bag.” In post-classical times, the Latin noun was also used as a slang meaning “windbag” or “chatterbox,” and when this colloquialism passed into Old French, it became fol and was used to mean “buffoon” and “jester.” Middle English borrowed the Old French noun (and its form) in the early thirteenth century, though English speakers used it to mean not only “jester” or “clown” but also "an unwise person." When the verb sense first appeared in the English lexicon around 1350, it was originally spelled folen and meant “to act unwisely,” and while it took only another twenty-five years or so for the spelling of both the verb and the noun to become the current fool, it took more than six centuries for the verb to accumulate all of the additional meanings it has today: the sense of “to trick or deceive” and its related connotations, such as “to surprise” and “to joke,” didn't appear until 1595; “to tamper, toy, or contend,” usually used in the phrasal form fool with, appeared no sooner than the mid-seventeenth century; “to pass time idly,” often rendered as the phrasal form fool around, didn't come into use until circa 1875; and “to have sexual relations,” often rendered phrasally as either fool around or fool around with, wasn't coined until the early 1960s.

©2013 Michael R. Gates

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