The modern adjective fond refers to the quality of having affection, liking, or eagerness for someone or something. But this was not always so. In Middle English, fond could mean “insipid, flavorless” or “foolish, stupid.” The verb fonnen meant “to be foolish or misguided, to fool or make a fool of someone,” and the modern fond comes from the past participle of that verb, fonned.* The word fun comes from the same root, and the modern verb to fondle is derived from the verb fonnen, appearing in the eighteenth century.
We don’t know where the word comes from; it just appears in Middle English. There are what look to be cognates in Swedish and Icelandic, which might point to the word having been brought to England by the Vikings, but there are phonological problems with that hypothesis that make it unlikely.
In Middle English, fond could also be a noun, meaning “fool,” as in Chaucer’s The Reeve’s Tale, written c. 1390, lines 4088–89:
Why ne had thow pit the capul in the lathe?
Ilhayl! By God, Alayn, thou is a fonne!
(Why did you not put the horse in the barn?
Ill fortune! By God, Alan, you are a fond!)
And at around the same time, theologian John Wyclif uses the word in its “insipid” sense, paraphrasing the gospels:
Ȝif þe salt be fonnyd it is not worþi.
(If the salt is fond, it is not worthy.)
But over time, the word softened, coming to mean gently foolish, as in a person overcome with the madness of love. In 1579, John Lyly writes in his book Euphues, the Anatomy of Wyt:
A cooling Carde for Philautus and all fond louers.
And by 1590, Shakespeare was using fond in its modern sense, where the foolish connotation has been dropped, leaving only the gently loving. From A Midsummer Night’s Dream (II.i):
Effect it with some care, that he may prove
More fond on her than she upon her love.
But the older sense meaning “foolish” did not completely disappear for some while. Thirteen years later the Bard has the character Isabella say in Measure for Measure (II.ii)
I’ll bribe you.
Not with fond sicles [foolish shekels] of tested gold,
Or stones, whose rate are either rich or poor
As fancy values them; but with true prayers.
So when you say you are fond of words and language, there may be double entendre buried in there.
* Liberman says that fonned ”may never have existed,” but I’m not sure what he’s on about. The past participle is well attested in Middle English literature, being especially common in Wycliffite works.
“fond, adj. and n.1,” “fon, v.,” “fon, n. and adj.,” “fun, v.,” “fondle, v.,” Oxford English Dictionary, second edition, 1989.
“fonnen, v.,” “fonne, n.,” Middle English Dictionary, 2001
Liberman, Anatoly, Word Origins ... And How We Know Them, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005, 91, 195.
Copyright 1997-2015, by David Wilton