Musings

Word Discussions: Sally

As I was writing I found myself using a word that puzzled me the second after I used it. “Sally”, if you think about it, is a really weird word. I can point to a number of words in the English language that seem really strange when you use them in writing and ‘sally’ is definitely one of them. Isn’t it primarily a name in this day and age? There’s tons of famous Sally’s like Sally Ride, Sally Field, the Sally in The Nightmare Before Christmas. It’s not often I hear people use it in it’s other verb or noun tenses. It would be a good day when I hear someone say, “I’ll sally forth to the nearest McDonald’s for some quick and greasy refreshment.”

Despite how strange the word is, I really enjoy hearing it in verbal usage. I often hear it in adventure stories or historical fiction pieces involving some quest (for the Holy Grail, perhaps). There’s something so epic when a character on his noble steed with the wind in their hair says something like, “Let us sally forth on a brave new adventure that will give us riches far beyond our wildest dreams!” I love using Sally to copy this epic-ness in my fiction (or ironically in my personal stories).

The word etymology goes all the way back to the old French saillie or saillir which also has its Latin roots. ‘Sally’ first recorded usage in the English language was around 1440 and at that time it meant “to leap, bound or dance.”  Though this definition is rather obsolete, some modern definitions have the same connotation. One such definition is “to set out briskly or energetically.”

Other forms of this word are used expressly to represent some military action.  One version of the  noun specifically  defines ‘sally’ as “a sudden rush (out) from a besieged place on the enemy (OED, n., 1a),”  In writing, this definition goes all the way back to 1542. The verb form, which came into usage around the same time, described the act of rushing at an enemy. As the years went on, ‘sally’ became to more generally describe the act of setting out to do something or a sudden start of activity. It began to mean “to go boldly forth” or “to set out on a side trip.”

One of the more interesting definitions that I never really knew was “an outburst or flight of passion, fancy, etc.” The first use of the word in this inflection was used late in the 17th century. In literature, authors often used the phrases like “sallies of wit” or “sallies of passion.” I find this definition particularly interesting because I never heard in this way. In all the literature I read (a good deal being Victorian) you would think that I would have come across this phrasing. If I had, it would have stuck with me. I might inject this one into my own speech. Rather than saying having “a good outburst,” why not “have a good sally.” As I wrote that though, it still sounded rather odd. Maybe that could explain that the most recent usage that the Oxford English dictionary lists happened in 1875.

So in conclusion, I may have too much time on my hands if I  dedicate it to intensive word searches. Beyond that, however, I’m really glad I looked into it. “Sally” is a very fascinating word like a great many others in this crazy English language.


I’ve freed this from the dusty archives.

I also reposted because WordPress did something strange to the former post.

For my sources, I mostly used the Oxford English dictionary and a contemporary dictionary.

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