I hereby submit an appropriate entry in our efforts to explicate whimsy, and other such dizzying frivolity:
A Brief History of the Word Giddy
What does leisure have to do with mental illness? The relation has much to do with the continually shifting and evolving idea of a stable person. The idea of stability itself has many denotations. Ultimately, one is stable if they are sure of footing in some sense, be that physical, economic, or rational. Then again how unstable can one be before they are no longer stable? To behave erratically, casually, or even enthusiastically in a willful, cogent state has been a luxury in humanity’s past, times where tests of survival in the most primal of senses was more part of a daily routine. The word giddy bears the marks of this changing notion of stability. The first Oxford English Dictionary reference of its usage one thousand years ago entails a religious undertaking to explain away mental instability (“Giddy.” adj. 1a) and yet its modern day usage speaks more to a description of dizzying elation (“Giddy.” adj. 3a). Giddy has quite obviously undergone amelioration and a shift in denotation. In a way the history of this word’s semantic shifts tell a story that speak to the last thousand years of societal progress.
Mental illness has its own tragic history of misunderstanding. Prior to scientific biological inquiry much of behavior was explained by shifts in ‘vapors’, and ‘spirits’ – spiritual machinations far from explications detailing the interactions of hormones, blood chemistry, and the central nervous system. Regardless of its contemporary explanation, unstable behavior can be antithetical to the methodical and organized nature of survivalist, even societal life. The Barnhart Concise Dictionary of Etymology as well as The Oxford English Dictionary puts giddy’s first known use around 1000 CE from the Old English gydig meaning “insane or mad” or “possessed by a spirit” (“Giddy.” Barnhart). We see similar Old English etymologies as “possessed by God” (Shipley 116) or “god possessed” (Funk 265), stemming from its root gud. Its earliest definitions, though now obsolete, are particularly pejorative, correlating insanity with foolishness (“Giddy.” adj. 1a) or more provincially in places like York and Derby, ‘anger’ (“Giddy.” adj. 1b). Perhaps of note though is the first known noun form of this behavioral description, which though we would be quick to assume applied to humans, was commonly used with sheep beginning in the 17th century (“Gid.” n. 1a). Gid is a meningeal disease that manifests itself in a very similar form to the frenzied, possessed state known as giddiness. The larvae of a tape worm infect the sheep’s brain stem and brain, causing vertigo-like symptoms where the animal takes on an “unsteady gait and staggering” (“Gid.” n. American Heritage) , its “head tilt[s]” and begins “circling”; it can lead to blindness and eventually death if untreated (Schoenian). Given this type of behavior, rendered inexplicable by the lack of the knowledge of its pathology at the time, this concretion of the word giddy from its Old English roots as ‘possessed’ or ‘insane’ to this Middle English form is understandable.
In as much as that semantic shift made sense at the time, so too does another shift, but this time an abstraction. The symptoms of gid seem to have been transferred so that beginning around the same time the term giddy became synonymous with ‘dizziness’, or a “whirling in the head”, a “confused sensation” (“Giddy.” adj. 2a) or whirling with a “bewildering rapidity” (“Giddy.” adj. 2d). Shakespeare even used the term in his plays Richard III and Henry IV, and this denotation seems to have remained up into Present day English in the late 19th century. However, the symptomatic madness of gid and its Old English ties to human mental illness were not lost. During the same time period the term also came to mean someone who was “mentally intoxicated” or “incapable of serious thought”, “frivolous”, “flighty”, “inconstant” and “foolish” (“Giddy.” adj. 3a). It would seem that though this was a slight amelioration of its origins, giddy still came to be used as a pejorative term from the 16th century and afterward, only this time especially for those deemed less than equal: women, children, the poor and minorities in England (“Giddy.” adj. 3a). This pejorative broadening may account for its generalization as an ironic intensive in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, used in particular by author Rudyard Kipling (“Giddy.” adj. 3b). But as giddy was being used to describe individuals thought to be of a less serious, unsteady quality, a turn of phrase in Samuel Johnson’s definition of the word is of interest, “elated to thoughtlessness” (“Giddy.” Johnson). It would be elation where giddy found its next turn.
If people are unserious or frivolous in a time where occupation is connoted with seriousness, one is led to believe that they are so because they are either unstable or that they are leisurely. Indeed, examining the definition for leisurely we find that it is a condition associated with having “unoccupied time” (“Leisurely.” adj. 1). A Concise Etymological Dictionary of the English Language from 1899 determines that giddy may have its root in the Anglo-Saxon giddian, meaning “to sing, to be merry”, indicating that giddy’s original sense may have been that of ‘mirth’ and linked with the Anglo-Saxon word gid, a song or poem (“Giddy.” Skeat). If this were true, it would pre-date our previously indicated first known use of giddy in Old English. This definition not only shifts the denotation of giddy but its connotation as well. Regardless of its etymological veracity, why would this book choose to focus on this definition? Is it merely a differing point of research? An error?
As the 19th century came to a close, and especially into the 20th century, leisure time in the West came to be something far more common and frequent, and as expected the term underwent a semantic change once more, an ameliorated shift in connotation. It would seem that in a way, the more leisure people had, the less unstable leisure looked. After all if everyone is doing it, how thoughtless or ill considered can it really be? Having unrelenting fun, and having a penchant for leisure became tied with the new ameliorated yet still dizzying giddy. But in England giddy had always been tied to enthusiasm. Wilfred Funk of Funk & Wagnall’s publishing fame writes in 1950 that the word enthusiastic has a similar origin to giddy (Funk 265-6). Both words referred to those in a “prophetic frenzy”: “the giddy prophets” and “enthusiasts who converted pagans”, where enthusiast sprang from the Greek en theos, “in the power of…God”, and giddy from “god possessed” (Funk 265-6). Funk continues by saying that today we have lightened the terms, likening enthusiast to “an eager baseball fan” and notes that giddy can now be found in the British name for a dizzying carnival ride, the giddy-go-round, or as we know it in America, a merry-go-round (Funk 266). With this connection in mind, it is perhaps then fitting that giddy has become titular to a technological device of leisure, for it would seem that giddy’s meaning has progressed along with the culture, science, and technology of English speakers.
Funk, Wilfred. Word Origins and their Romantic Stories. New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1950. 265-6. Print.
“gid, n.” The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language. 4th ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2000. Print.
“gid, n.” The Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. OED Online. Oxford University Press. 1 Dec. 2010. Web. 22 Jan. 2011. <http://www.oed.com>.
“giddy.” The Oxford Dictionary of Word Histories. Ed. Glynnis Chantrell. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002. 231. Print.
“giddy, adj.” The Barnhart Concise Dictionary of Etymology. New York: Harper Collins, 1995. 316. Print.
“giddy, adj.” The Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. OED Online. Oxford University Press. 1 Dec. 2010. Web. 22 Jan. 2011. <http://www.oed.com/>.
“giddy, n.” The Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. OED Online. Oxford University Press. 1 Dec. 2010. Web. 22 Jan. 2011. <http://www.oed.com/>.
“giddy, v.” The Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. OED Online. Oxford University Press. 1 Dec. 2010. Web. 22 Jan. 2011. <http://www.oed.com/>.
Johnson, Samuel. “giddy, adj.” A Dictionary of the English Language. Volume 1. 6th ed. London: 1785. 870. Web. 22 Jan. 2011.
“leisurely, adj.” The Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. OED Online. Oxford University Press. 1 Dec. 2010. Web. 22 Jan. 2011. <http://www.oed.com/>.
Schoenian, Susan. “Meningeal Worm: Brain Worm–Deer Worm Paralaphostrongylus tenius.” 21 Dec. 2009. Web. 22 Jan. 2011. <http://www.sheepandgoat.com/articles/deerworm.html>.
Shipley, Joseph T. The Origins of English Words: A Discursive Dictionary of Indo-European Roots. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1984. 116. Print.
Skeat, Walter W. “giddy, adj.” A Concise Etymological Dictionary of the English Language. 4th ed. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1899. 175. Print.