Fun Etymology Tuesday – Nice

Hello boys, girls and everyone else!
It’s the moment you were all waiting for: Fun Etymology time!

Have you ever had a schoolmate you remember as being kind of a jerk, who you then meet at a school get-together years later and he’s become this really nice person?
Some words are just like that, and the process they undergo is called “semantic amelioration” (fancy Latin-speak for “meaning improvement”).

Speaking of nice people, today’s word is the poster child for this process: “nice”.

The roots of “nice” lie in the Latin word “nescius”, a word meaning “ignorant” (from “ne-scire”, literally “not-know”), this word was then filtered through 12th century French and then arrived in English, where it originally meant “stupid, ignorant or annoying”. In the 13th century, the meaning shifted to “fastidious” or “fussy” (probably as an extension of “annoying”). From there, it became associated with attention to detail, then with finesse, until by the end of the 14th century, it had come to mean “delicate” or “fragile”. In the 18th century it was already commonly used to mean “lovely, agreeable”. Finally, in the 19th century, it got its modern meaning of “kind” or “enjoyable”.
In the 19th century, the use of this word had become kind of a fad, so much so that some old curmudgeons started complaining that everything was constantly being described as “nice”, to the point that the word seemed to have lost all kind of meaning. Of course, the word survived very well, thank you very much, and is still going strong today, with as much meaning as it had before, albeit a very different one.

And that’s how in just eight centuries “That guy is really nice” went to being an insult to being a compliment.
The roads words take never cease to amaze us.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *