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In the United Kingdom and in some other places, the silly season is the period lasting for a few summer months typified by the emergence of frivolous news stories in the media. It is known in many languages as the cucumber time. The term is first attested in 1861, was listed in the second (1894) edition of Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, and remains in use at the start of the 21st century. The 15th edition of Brewer's expands on the second, defining the silly season as "the part of the year when Parliament and the Law Courts are not sitting (about August and September)".
In North America the period is often referred to prosaically as the slow news season, or less commonly with the phrase dog days of summer. In Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa, the silly season has come to refer to the Christmas/New Year festive period (which occurs during the summer season in the Southern Hemisphere) on account of the higher than usual number of social engagements where the consumption of alcohol is typical.
The term is also used in sports, to describe periods outside traditional competitive sporting seasons.
The first attestation in the Oxford English Dictionary is an article titled "The Silly Season" in the Saturday Review edition of 13 July 1861. The article is specifically about an alleged reduction in the quality of the editorial content of The Times newspaper:
- during the months of autumn [, w]hen 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. ... 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. ... 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. ... 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.
Typically, the latter half of the summer is slow in terms of newsworthy events. Newspapers as their primary means of income rely on advertisements, which rely on readers seeing them, but historically newspaper readership drops off during this time. In the United Kingdom, Parliament takes its summer recess, so that parliamentary debates and Prime Minister's Questions, which generate much news coverage, do not happen. This period is also a summer school holiday, when many families with children choose to take holidays, and there is accordingly often a decline of business news, as many employers reduce their activity. Similar recesses are typical of legislative bodies elsewhere. To retain (and attract) subscribers, newspapers would print attention-grabbing headlines and articles to boost sales, often to do with minor moral panics or child abductions. For example, the extensive British press coverage devoted to Operation Irma, a humanitarian airlift during the Siege of Sarajevo, was criticised as a "silly season" tactic.
Other countries have comparable periods, for example the Sommerloch ("summer [news]hole") in German-speaking Europe; French has la morte-saison ("the dead season" or "the dull season") or "la saison des marronniers" ("the conker tree season"), and Swedish has nyhetstorka ("news drought").
In many languages, the name for the silly season references cucumbers (more precisely: gherkins or pickled cucumbers). Komkommertijd in Dutch, Danish agurketid, Icelandic gúrkutíð, Norwegian agurktid (a piece of news is called agurknytt or agurknyhet, i.e., "cucumber news"), Czech okurková sezóna, Slovak uhorková sezóna, Polish Sezon ogórkowy, Hungarian uborkaszezon, and Hebrew עונת המלפפונים (onat ha'melafefonim, "season of the cucumbers") all mean "cucumber time" or "cucumber season". The corresponding term in German is Sauregurkenzeit and in Estonian hapukurgihooaeg ("pickled cucumber season"); the same term is also used in Croatian as sezona kiselih krastavaca and in Slovene as čas kislih kumaric.
In Spain the term serpiente de verano ("summer snake") is often used, not for the season, but for the news items. The term is a reference to the Loch Ness Monster and similar creatures, who are reputed to get more headlines in summer.
A side effect of stirring up the public in this manner comes when an authentic story is dismissed as a prank, or when a superfluous story is taken as legitimate.
A 1950 short story by Cyril M. Kornbluth, titled "The Silly Season", makes use of this concept by having invading aliens stage one strange but harmless event after another. All are duly reported by the newspapers until the public is bored with them, and when a final "strange event" occurs, no one is prepared to accept it as an invasion until it is too late. The story was included in the 1952 anthology Tomorrow, the Stars, edited by Robert A. Heinlein.
Silly Season also refers to time periods outside traditional season-long competitive sporting competitions. In team sports such as association football and professional ice hockey, and leagues such as Formula One, NASCAR, the NBA, or the NFL, the final weeks of the season leading into off-time between one season and the next is filled with speculation regarding possible changes involving players, staff, and teams. Regardless of whether the speculation remains just that or indeed bears fruit, the moves and the discussions they generate help build interest in the leagues, their teams, and their upcoming seasons.
Silly season is also used in professional golf to describe tournaments that are not official PGA Tour or LPGA Tour events. Normally scheduled at or near the end of the calendar year, when PGA and LPGA tournaments are not usually scheduled, these events also employ formats of play not normally seen on those tours. The Shark Shootout and the Skins Game are two such examples of silly season events.
- Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. "silly season"
- "The Silly Season". Saturday Review. 12 (298): 37–38. 13 July 1861. Retrieved 18 April 2019..
- Willman, John (24 December 1993). "Mercy's short shelf life". Financial Times.
- "Brewer, E. Cobham. Dictionary of Phrase & Fable. Cu'cumber Time". www.bartleby.com.
- Notes and Queries. Oxford University Press. 1853. p. 439.
- "Sky Sports, 2009". Skysports.com. Retrieved 21 May 2018.
- "Burnside: Grading Day 1 of free agency". 2 July 2008.
- "Knutson: It's Silly Season in F1, too". 24 July 2008.
- Caraviello, David (11 January 2012). "NASCAR's 'silly season' takes crazy to higher level". NASCAR. Retrieved 25 October 2012.
- "Ford: Winners and losers of the summer". 29 August 2008.
- "Sky Sports, 2009". Skysports.com. Retrieved 21 May 2018.
- "96 Fun and Odd Slang Terms Used By Golfers and What They Mean".
- Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase & Fable, 15th edition, 1996 published by Cassell.
- Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase & Fable, 2nd edition, 1898, online: definition for silly season
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