#tbt: The etymology of ‘nice’

#tbt on Cultured AF uncovers forgotten, or little-known, cultural people, places and things.

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The etymology of ‘nice’.

How did the word ‘nice’ transform from meaning “foolish” to its current form, from an insult to a compliment, from precision to vagueness?

We start way back, five or six thousand years ago, with the Proto-Indo-European form “skei”, meaning cut or split. So far, so far off the real definition.

This then developed into various Latin words, including “scire” i.e. to know or (relating back to the origin) to split truth from falsehood. This could be combined with the preface “ne” (not) to create “nescire“, which meant to not know about or to be ignorant of. “Nescire” leads to the adjective “nescius“, meaning ignorant. Try flinging that at someone during an argument for maximum nerd/dickhead points.

Nice then develops from this, and from the Old French “nice” meaning careless, clumsy; weak; poor, needy; simple, stupid, silly, foolish to make the original thirteenth century English version of nice mean foolish, stupid, senseless.

This meaning transforms into timid (pre-1300), to fussy/fastidious (late C14), to dainty/delicate (c. 1400), to precise/careful (1500s – like “a nice distinction” or “nice and early” now). This is obviously very generalistic, and many times we don’t know specifically what sense authors were referring to, especially during the Early Modern period.

Already, we’re seeing a process of amelioration (when a word’s meaning gets more positive over time – see sick for a modern example). But the eighteenth century, the start of our period of politeness, really saw nice take off. People started to value precision and carefulness, in combo with their keenness for etiquette and manners. By 1769, nice is seen as meaning agreeable, delightful. By 1830, signifies someone who is kind, thoughtful.

But this growth in positivity, or amelioration, makes nice more popular, and soon people start to complain that it’s being over-used. See my favourite Austen hero, Henry Tilney, for a prime example:

“I am sure,” cried Catherine, “I did not mean to say anything wrong; but it is a nice book, and why should I not call it so?” “Very true,” said Henry, “and this is a very nice day, and we are taking a very nice walk; and you are two very nice young ladies. Oh! It is a very nice word indeed! It does for everything.” [Jane Austen, “Northanger Abbey,” 1803]

Naturally, it’s the women who are seen as at fault for using nice too much. By 1926, it was pronounced “too great a favorite with the ladies, who have charmed out of it all its individuality and converted it into a mere diffuser of vague and mild agreeableness.” [Fowler].

The etymology of nice can tell us the history of the UK, to an extent; the valuing of tidiness, fastidiousness, care, and, ironically, precision.




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