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shameless pleading







Dear Word Detective: For a few years, I have been trying to figure out if “blithely” and “blindly” have historically been used interchangeably. My understanding of “blithely” is, basically, “doing things without thinking about them, therefore running the danger of doing dangerous things.” And some uses of the word “blind” definitely would fit with that, such as “following someone blindly” or “going blindly forward.” My guess is that some phrases might have originated with either “blind” or “blithe” as the word, and then people misheard them. The reason I have been wondering this is that a couple years back, I studied the history of the organized blind movement. While studying, I learned about the use of blindness as a negative metaphor for the inability or unwillingness to think. I know there are a lot of such phrases, but some at least seem like mistakes. — A. Greenwick.

There are indeed a lot of such phrases, many of which began as metaphors but have become established English idioms, usually in a derogatory sense. Strike the “usually” — I can’t think of a single positive case. One such use that I have watched wax and wane in the course of my life, and currently seems to be increasing again, is the use of “retarded” (or “retard”) applied to a person perceived to be either wrong on some question or simply uncool. This obnoxious use seems especially popular on the internet, where it is, unfortunately, impossible to simply punch the offenders in the nose. Come on, developers. There should be an app for that.

“Blind” first appeared as an adjective in Old English, based on Germanic roots carrying the sense of “sightless” as well as “obscure, dim, in darkness.” But “blind” also brought with it the figurative senses (as enumerated by the Oxford English Dictionary) of “lacking in mental perception, discernment, or foresight; destitute of intellectual, moral, or spiritual light,” and these senses were used in English as often as the literal “sightless” sense. The use of “blind” to mean “undiscriminating, reckless, not discerning, etc.” (“The blind veneration that generally is paid to antiquity,” Hogarth, 1753) dates back at least to the 15th century. So the modern use of “blind” as a negative metaphor is nothing new in English.

“Blithe” is a completely separate word with a much happier history. The roots of “blithe” lie in early Germanic forms meaning “gentle, kind, happy, cheerful” and the like, and the ultimate source of “blithe” seems to be a root meaning “to shine.” Can’t get much cheerier than that. In English, where “blithe” first appeared in Old English, it meant simply “kind or friendly” to others or “happy and cheerful” in demeanor (“His spirit was blithe and its fire unquenchable,” 1872).

This “fun to be around” sense of “blithe” chugged along happy as a clam until the 1920s, when (perhaps reflecting the disillusionment born of World War I) it suddenly took a darker turn. In “England, My England,” a collection of short stories, D.H. Lawrence employed “blithe” in a new, negative sense of “heedless, careless, or unthinking” (“From mother and nurse it was a guerrilla gunfire of commands, and blithe, quicksilver disobedience from the three blonde, never-still little girls.”).

This “who cares?” sense of “blithe” is now, unfortunately, by far the most common (“The era of cheap fuels led to a blithe disregard of second-law fundamentals,” 1977), and seeing “blithe” used in any sense more positive than “unrattled” (“The story’s part-blithe, part-resigned tone … will ring familiar,” LA Times, 3/11/12) is rare.

The relatively-new “heedless, careless, or unthinking” meaning of “blithe” certainly overlaps with the much older figurative uses of “blind,” but I doubt that confusion of the two words has played much part in their evolution (which is not to say that some people haven’t confused them at times). The change of the meaning of “blithe” from “cheerful” to “witless” seems a natural evolution of the sense of the word.

5 comments to Blithe

  • What about blind justice, or the fact that love is blind? In both cases (though I grant moreso the former), the inability to perceive differences or small details is a positive thing…

  • Rachel

    What? So blithe really means something happy, or cheerful? I heard a friend use it in the negative way before. I always thought that it was a negative word, until I saw this. This is great!

  • Blithe

    My name is Blithe. Blithe is an ancient Germanic and later an old English term meaning happy, cheerful, kind and carefree, but in recent times blithe has been hijacked to emphasise carefree in a negative way, usually in a political setting.

    My father was a journalist and my mother a librarian, both wordsmiths, and they named me with intention of the true meaning of Blithe – happy, cheerful and carefree (in a positive sense). In the Mother Goose rhyme about days of birth. “Sunday’s child is Bonny and Blithe”. I was born on a Sunday.

    Blithe is an adjective and a unisex name but more often used for boys, Blythe is a noun and is commonly used as girl’s name. Most people want to spell my name with a “y” and assume I’m female until they meet me. As a shy and gentle boy, my name made me a target and I fought my way through childhood and for a short time I wanted to change my name; but I’m proud of my name and it made me the strong person and father I am today – happy, cheerful and carefree but also confident. Invariably when I meet someone for the first time they are fascinated, and make the comment that it is a great and beautiful name. I always have to spell it and explain the meaning. Blithe or Blythe are both character-building names.

    I love my name. I believe your name shapes who you are and your destiny; without a doubt Blithe is who I am.

  • tratsl

    Yes, I’ve been looking into Ralph Waldo Emerson’s phrase “feet planted on bare ground and head bathed in the blithe air.”
    I want this word in its original meaning as I’ve researched and would use that word as Blithe has understood.

  • tratsl

    blithe (adj.)
    Old English bliþe “joyous, kind, cheerful, pleasant,” from Proto-Germanic *blithiz “gentle, kind” (source also of Old Saxon bliði “bright, happy,” Middle Dutch blide, Dutch blijde, Old Norse bliðr “mild, gentle,” Old High German blidi “gay, friendly,” Gothic bleiþs “kind, friendly, merciful”). Related: Blithely.

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