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I post on Monday with an occasional random blog thrown in for good measure. I do my best to answer all comments via email and visit around on the days I post.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Origins: It's Not Nice to Say Nice

Origins is a recurring post in which I delve into the history of a word or phrase. - Custom comment codes for MySpace, Hi5, Friendster and more

Today's word is: NICE

I was a terrible, lousy, horrible speller all through school. Surprisingly with the advent of computers, I have become much better. You'd think spell check would have made me worse by making it easier. But the opposite is the case.

I now consider myself simply a lousy speller.

My family never gave in when I asked them how to spell a word. It was always, "Look it up in the dictionary." To which I always whined, "How can I look it up when I don't know how to spell it?" But they were merciless and stood their ground. It taught me how to look up all possible spellings until I got the right one. It also taught me to love words and their histories.

I was about eight, when I first discovered etymology. The word was NICE and yeah, I couldn't spell it. Those silent Es and essy sounding Cs gave me fits.

This is what I discovered. Nice comes to us from Middle English and meant foolish or wanton. The Middle English word came from Old French and meant simple-minded or stupid. And that comes from the Latin word "nescius" which means ignorant or not knowing. So, originally, nice was used to describe someone who was ignorant, unschooled or silly.

When I learned this I was totally shocked and totally hooked. I would never look at words the same way and I would never take them for granted. Now they were mysteries with histories.

It wasn't until Shakespeare's time that nice began to take on a new meaning. I can just hear those rowdy teens, those juvenile delinquents, those avant garde artist types turning it into slang, saying, "Thy doublet is NICE!" The same thing is happening today with the word BAD. "Bad jacket, dude." Maybe in a few hundred years bad will mean nice.

Anyway, if there's someone you really don't like and you want to let him know in a totally subtle way without being rude, you can tell him you think he's a really "nice" person. I betcha he'll never get the sarcasm.

Got a favorite word that's changed it's meaning?

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