A remarkable etymology has been brought to my attention by the indefatigable aldiboronti at “the word surly is no more than an alteration of sirly, which meant lordly, haughty, imperious, acting like a sir in fact.” A couple of citations for the original form:

1579 SPENSER Sheph. Cal. July 203 Sike syrlye shepheards han we none, They keepen all the path.
1600 HOLLAND Livy XXXV. xxxviii. 911 Syrly lords (say they) were the Macedonians, and rigorous.

Here’s Pope with the old sense of the new form:

1726 POPE Odyss. XXIII. 50 Stern as the surly lion o’er his prey.

And the first cite for the newer, less lordly sense nicely exemplifies the transition, from a lion to a dog:

1670 RAY Prov. 208 As surly as a butchers dog.


  1. david waugh says

    Funny when you consider that “surly” has ended up meaning pretty much the same as “boorish” and “churlish”. Could this mean that middle-class people are not allowed to be grumpy?

  2. Just to note that there was some history in the chronological interval between the two citations– regicide, civil war– that could affect the connotations of ‘acting like a sir’…

  3. mollymooly says

    Then there’s the apocryphal story that Henry VIII was so annoyed with his unyielding beefsteak he dubbed it a “surly loin”.

  4. “It’s time to slip the surly bonds of gravity and punch the face of God!” (Homer Simpson)

  5. With a spelling evolution like this, we must be now somewhat less critical of all those people who now write “surname” as “sirname”.

  6. Interesting that surly and churlish have coincided in meaning considering that they come from opposite ends of the class spectrum…

  7. David Marjanović says

    French surnom.

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