The phrase the silly season denotes a period, usually in late summer and early autumn, when newspapers and other media cover trivial material because of a lack of more important news.
This phrase originated in the United Kingdom, where the supposed lack of important news is a result of Parliament’s summer recess in August and September, along with similar breaks at other institutions.
It first appeared—and was probably coined—in an unsigned article about The Times of London, England, published in The Saturday Review of Politics, Literature, Science, and Art (London, England) of 13th July 1861:
THE SILLY SEASON.
“Constant readers” of the Times—understanding by “Constant readers” those who really read the Times all the year round—must have been often amused by watching the change which yearly comes over the great journal during the months of autumn. When Parliament is no longer sitting and the gay world is no longer gathered together in London, something very different is supposed to do for the remnant of the public from what is needed in the politer portions of the year. The Times’s great men have doubtless gone out of town, like other great men. How could a leading article for the Times be written out of London, and how should men capable of writing leading articles for the Times stay in London at such a season? They are vanished. The hands which at other times wield the pen for our instruction are now wielding the gun on a Scotch moor or the Alpenstock on a Swiss mountain. Work is left to feebler hands. Then it is that ecclesiastical reformers press the claims of Mr. Slope to the Deanery of Barchester; then it is that enthusiastic antiquaries rummage the ruins of Carthage in hopes of finding the bones of Hannibal. In those months the great oracle becomes—what at other times it is not—simply silly. In spring and early summer, the Times is often violent, unfair, fallacious, inconsistent, intentionally unmeaning, even positively blundering, but it is very seldom merely silly. So far from it, one can, in a kind of way, generally admire the shrewdness with which fallacies, inconsistencies, and even blunders are adapted to the intellectual standard of those for whom leading articles in the Times are mainly written. In the dead of autumn, when the second and third rate hands are on, we sink from nonsense written with a purpose to nonsense written because the writer must write either nonsense or nothing.
The phrase was used in its current generic sense in the Post-Scriptum to London Correspondence, in Trewman’s Exeter Flying Post (Exeter, Devon, England) of Wednesday 18th September 1861—Giuseppe Garibaldi (1807-82) was an Italian patriot and military leader:
A few odd items of intelligence have come to hand this morning, one of which is that the stories so industriously propagated about Garibaldi’s going to America or being invited to go, are inventions utterly baseless, got up nobody knows why or wherefore, except that at this season of the year, “the silly season,” canards [cf. footnote] are in full flight.
The York Herald (York, Yorkshire, England) of Saturday 26th September 1863 was critical of Parliamentarians’ activities during Parliament’s summer recess:
In relieving Parliament from its annual labours, our Most Gracious Sovereign, in an old-established formula, generally alludes to the “other and important duties” which members of both Houses have to perform during the recess. Many of these “duties” no doubt exclusively relate to field sports, and much time and money are devoted to what has been cynically called the “silly season,” during which all who can afford the relaxation, gravitate towards the seaside, or extend their journeyings to the continent.
The phrase was used as a synonym of the dead season (i.e., the period when ‘society’ has departed from holiday resorts) in Social Science, an unsigned article about “the scientific congresses which have lately, in provincial cities, beguiled these autumn months”, published in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine (Edinburgh, Scotland, and London, England) of October 1861:
Few inventions of recent days, prolific in expedients for the people, have been more happy in contrivance, or attained greater success, than these itinerant social and scientific performances. […] A man of science in these our days, accustomed during long dreary months to London residence and routine, with little, it may be, save the light of knowledge to cheer him through dark winter nights, must find it a refresher to get abroad into the free air and the green fields, to “ventilate” his intellect and renew his youth. It is then, as we have said, a most happy contrivance, this holding of congresses, social, scientific, and philanthropic, during what would otherwise be the dead season, sometimes called irreverently the silly season.
In the southern hemisphere, the phrase is applied to the austral-summer holiday period, as in the local news published in The Age (Melbourne, Victoria, Australia):
– on Wednesday 13th January 1886:
There are signs that “the silly season” has set in with more than usual severity, and it is only natural that the dispute of the dock laborers with their employers should be an occasion for infinite nonsense being talked.
– on Thursday 20th January 1887:
Whether it is that the setting in of the “silly season” has induced municipal councillors to try their hands at providing amusements for the people in rivalry of Parliament, it is certain that the new year has witnessed a full list of episodes of a lively character emanating from the council chambers.
Gilbert Mant defined the phrase in his column The way I see it, in The Sydney Morning Herald (Sydney, New South Wales, Australia) of Sunday 20th January 1957:
At the moment we are passing through what is commonly regarded in the newspaper world as a “silly season.”
It’s the sort of season when, apart from dangerous crises in Egypt, Israel, Aden, Kashmir, Poland, Hungary and Indonesia, hardly anything ever happens.
In other words, there’s nothing much to write about and you have to do as best as you can.
That’s why, in silly seasons, we have hoses disappearing into the ground, water running backwards in bath tubs, anti-rotary clotheslines, magic flutes, rock-’n’-roll and various other forms of mass hysteria.
Cf. also origin of ‘old chestnut’ and of French ‘marronnier’.
This photograph and caption are from In anticipation of the silly season: giant fish caught off the coast of California, self-derisively published in The Bystander (London, England) of Wednesday 8th June 1910:
A 216 lb. tuna caught on the coast of California by Mrs. Dickinson, and expert big game angler
Note: The noun canard (literally a duck in French) denotes an unfounded rumour or story; this sense is attested in 1843.
In French, canard in the sense of a false story reported by a second-rate newspaper is attested in the mid-18th century.
It seems to have originated in the phrase bailler un canard à moitié, literally to half-give a duck, meaning to deceive (the verb bailler is now archaic). What this phrase alluded to is obscure. It is first recorded in Les Neapolitaines, comedie françoise facecieuse. Sur le subiect d’vne Histoire d’vn Parisien, vn Espagnol, & vn Italien (Paris, France – 1584), a comedy by the French jurist and author François d’Ambroise (1550-1620).
This apparently gave rise to the phrase donneur de canards, literally a giver of canards, denoting a deceiver, attested in Les deux Freres Gemeaux, ou les Menteurs qui ne mentent point (Paris, France – 1665), a comedy by the French playwright Edme Boursault (1638-1701).
From the sense a false story reported by a second-rate newspaper, the French noun canard came to designate a second-rate newspaper, and, by extension, any newspaper—hence Le Canard enchaîné, literally The Chained-up Newspaper, the name of a French satirical weekly newspaper published in Paris and founded in 1915.