Word of the Week, Idle


So true!

As any cat owner will tell you. These creatures are the epitome of idleness. Mine sleep all day; wake for just long enough to eat and – if we’re lucky – empty their bowels in either the litter tray or the neighbour’s garden; then curl up and sleep again.

Idle is one of those words which divided moral opinion.

“The condition of perfection is idleness…”
-Oscar Wilde

“Purity of mind and idleness are incompatible…”
-Mahatma Gandhi

“Idleness is the only refuge of weak minds, and the holiday of fools”
-Lord Chesterfield

Idle demonstrates the living, evolving, mutating nature of language. I’m sure there must be a Darwinian theory of language development somewhere. It originated in Old English as idel and it is related to Old High German, Saxon and Dutch words ital, idal and idil respectively meaning “worthless, empty, vain”. This meaning persists to this day in phrases like “idle gossip”, “idle speculation”.

Around 1300 it acquired a secondary meaning – or a mutation if you like – to mean “lazy” and “unoccupied”. It is because of this mutation that the following cartoon works:


The sound of the word is also lovely: the stretched and elongated initial /ɑɪ/ sound that lingers and rolls around our gaping mouth as we utter it; a long lazy sound like a summer’s Sunday afternoon. And somehow the remaining consonant sounds are swallowed up by the /ɑɪ/.

It is a yawn in the form of a word.

Of course, we shouldn’t mistake lack of movement with idleness. Whilst the body may be static, the mind may be traversing great cerebral plains, leaping over mental peaks and swimming intellectual oceans. At least, that is what I hope the beautiful Mrs P believes when I’m still on the sofa in my dressing gown at twelve tomorrow!


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