In the United Kingdom, Ireland, Israel, 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. The term was coined in an 1861 Saturday Review article, and was listed in the second edition of Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (1894) and remains in use at the start of the 21st century. The fifteenth 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 the United States the period is referred to prosaically as the slow news season. 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.
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 when, for instance, 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. Similar recesses are typical of legislative bodies elsewhere, and there is also a decline of other news because vacations are common during that period. 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 criticized as a "silly season" tactic.
Other countries have comparable periods, for example the Sommerloch ("summer [news]hole") in Germany; 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, Hebrew עונת המלפפונים (season of the cucumbers, pronounced Onat Ha'melafefonim) and Estonian hapukurgihooaeg all mean "cucumber time" or "cucumber season". The corresponding German term is Sauregurkenzeit ("pickled cucumber season"); the same term is also used 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.
It also refers to off-seasons in sports, such as association football, professional ice hockey, Formula One, NBA, NASCAR, or NFL – where speculations are made regarding possible player or driver team changes of any those involved in the sport.
In US politics and lifestyle, the silly season is a period from early summer until the first week of October of election years. Primary elections are over at this time, but formal debates have not started and the general election is still many weeks away. Issues raised during this period are likely to be forgotten by the election, so candidates may rely on frivolous political posturing and hyperbole to get media attention and raise money.
- "The Silly Season", Saturday Review, Vol. 12 (No. 298, 13 Jul. 1861), pp. 37–38. Cited as first usage by the OED.
- Willman, John (24 December 1993). "Mercy's short shelf life". Financial Times.
- Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, 1898
- Notes and Queries, 1853 – Google Books
- Sky Sports, 2009
- ESPN, 2008
- ESPN, 2008
- ESPN, 2008
- Caraviello, David (2012-01-11). "NASCAR's 'silly season' takes crazy to higher level". NASCAR. Retrieved 2012-10-25.
- Sky Sports, 2009
- 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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