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Making Nice:

A surprising bit of etymology -- "nice," it turns out, comes from the Latin "nescius," meaning "ignorant." According to the Oxford English Dictionary, "The semantic development of this word from 'foolish, silly' to 'pleasing' is unparalleled in Latin or in the Romance languages. The precise sense development in English is unclear. N.E.D. (1906) s.v. notes that 'in many examples from the 16th and 17th cent. it is difficult to say in what particular sense the writer intended it to be taken'." Go figure.

Oh, and two obsolete definitions (2a and 2b in the OED): "Of conduct, behaviour, etc.: characterized by or encouraging wantonness or lasciviousness" and "Of a person: wanton, dissolute, lascivious" (citing, among other things, "nice wenches" in Shakespeare's Measure for Measure), not to be confused with 3f, "Respectable, virtuous, decent." Nice.

Porkchop:

Oh, and two obsolete definitions (2a and 2b in the OED): "Of conduct, behaviour, etc.: characterized by or encouraging wantonness or lasciviousness" and "Of a person: wanton, dissolute, lascivious" (citing, among other things, "nice wenches" in Shakespeare's Measure for Measure), not to be confused with 3f, "Respectable, virtuous, decent." Nice.


So that'swhat Borat meant by "Verra n-i-i-c-e." Maybe not so obsolete after all.
11.13.2007 1:53pm
KevinM:
Requires some nice distinctions, doesn't it?
11.13.2007 2:02pm
PatHMV (mail) (www):
Interesting. Is "naive" derived from the same source?
11.13.2007 2:05pm
Milhouse (www):
And then, of course, we have The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch.
11.13.2007 2:39pm
solon (mail) (www):
This is an interesting post, especially since I just reread Allen Bloom's the Closing of the American Mind. When discussing the modern day student (or at least the students that he instructed in his career), he referred to the as being "generally nice." Of course, he attacked them for being politically and culturally ignorant as well as not possessing the ability to discriminate-- meaning they lost the ability to make necessary distinctions and judgments.

Knowing Bloom's obsession with the idea that classical forms of knowledge are superior to modern day forms of knowledge, he may be aware of this definition.
11.13.2007 2:44pm
glangston (mail):
Cretin and Christian are interesting too.

It seemed with nice that it was said so many times with disdain that eventually everyone flipped on it. This must be an extreme example of "cascades".
11.13.2007 2:46pm
Skyler (mail) (www):
I remember learning this in junior high school. The teacher pointed out that the original meaning of nice and cute were derogatory. Now the official meanings are the opposite. But he pointed out that they might be moving back to being derogatory because who really wants to go on a blind date with a girl who is described as "nice" or "cute?"
11.13.2007 2:47pm
kevin r (mail):
Um, me?

Though my nice, cute wife might object.
11.13.2007 3:10pm
PatHMV (mail) (www):
It's quite common for a word to come to mean the opposite of it's original meaning. We see it happening today, with "bad," "wicked," and similar words.
11.13.2007 3:10pm
Temp Guest (mail):
PatHMV: If that happens with wicked it will be a double flip from the original, which derives from the same root as wizard and would original have meant something like wise, knowledgable, or learned.
11.13.2007 3:15pm
Eugene Volokh (www):
PatHMV: As to "naive," many online dictionaries will tell you.
11.13.2007 3:21pm
PatHMV (mail) (www):
But it would be so much easier if I could con somebody else into doing my homework for me! ;-)
11.13.2007 3:26pm
PersonFromPorlock:
Milhouse:

And then, of course, we have The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch.

No fair making intellectual at us. I see you and raise you Esmerelda Weatherwax, who isn't 'nice' at all but tends to know, to a nicety, what she wants.

The distinction between good girls and nice girls, incidentally, remains.
11.13.2007 3:37pm
marghlar:
Pat: naive is from nativus, through the middle french naif, according to the OED.

Doing someone else's homework is better than actually working.
11.13.2007 3:53pm
Cato:
I had always thought that the derivation of the modern definition of "nice" came from converting the noun for the French city of Nice to an adjective. Nice is, oh course, rather nice.
11.13.2007 4:03pm
Dilan Esper (mail) (www):
So when Natalie Maines says she's not ready to make nice, does she mean she is not ready to be ignorant or she's not ready to be slutty?
11.13.2007 4:14pm
PatHMV (mail) (www):
Hey, marghlar! Thanks, and good to see you around.
11.13.2007 4:16pm
Ziusudra (mail):
The Online Etymology Dictionary has more info on the development.
11.13.2007 4:24pm
KenB (mail):
I recall a joke from my younger days distinguishing between nice girls and good girls. Good girls went on a date, went home, and went to bed. Nice girls reversed the order of the last two. I did not know that the joke had an etymological foundation.
11.13.2007 4:32pm
KeithK (mail):
Kind of gives a new meaning to Santa finding out who is "naughty and nice".
11.13.2007 4:54pm
triticale (mail) (www):
Wouldn't it be nice if we were older, and we didn't have to wait so long...
11.13.2007 5:41pm
Siona Sthrunch (mail):
The etymologic development of "nice" sounds similar to that for "fondly," which used to mean foolishly, as in Shakespeare's "What my great-grandfather and his grandsire got / My careless father fondly gave away." King Henry VI, Part II, Act II, scene 2.
11.13.2007 5:43pm
neurodoc:
PatHMV: It's quite common for a word to come to mean the opposite of it's original meaning. We see it happening today, with "bad," "wicked," and similar words.
Can you give some examples other than "bad" and "wicked," which may or may not make it in the end. (Do current dictionaries recognize "bad" as a term of approbation, or would "bad" lose its hipness were that to happen, robbing it of its effect?)

If a word does somehow come to take on a meaning opposite of its original one, and those meanings then co-exist so that one can only understand them when used in context, then one has a "Janus" word. I always puzzle over how it is that "sanction" can signify either approval or disapproval.
11.13.2007 5:50pm
Frater Plotter:
"Wicked" has been used as an intensifier (e.g. "wicked good" meaning "very good") in the Boston area for years and years.

The expression "wicked pissah" is a standard test of one's ability to understand Bostonian dialect.
11.13.2007 6:05pm
SFO:
"Let" is one that has changed meaning over the years. For those reading the King James Version of the Bible, this causes problems; 2 Th 2:7 and Rom 1:13 are the verses I have handy.
11.13.2007 6:17pm
Bama 1L:
I'm not sure "ignorant" and "pleasant" are opposites. Certainly we can think of individuals in whom both qualities coexist. See also "buxom," which evolved in meaning from "compliant" to "plump"--both referring to women, which is revealing in itself.

The most interesting meaning of "nice" is its use as the opposite of "ignorant," seen in "nice distinction" and "nice point." What on earth was going on here?

Of course, this is mostly moot, inasmuch as "nice" is now just a bland term of general approval.

I would be astonished to learn that Harold Bloom or, indeed, anyone who studied Shakespeare in high school had not at least been exposed to this etymological curiosity. But surely no one nowadays uses "nice" to connote intellectual sophistication--although, as noted above, that was a meaning it once held.
11.13.2007 8:10pm
Hoosier:
My favorite recently-learned etymology: "idiot" comes from the Greek for one who is in private life; that is, one who is not active in the governing of the polis. Thus the implication was that such a person was not *fit* to make public decisions. Eventually, it came to mean one who is unfit to make *any* decisions.

But the derivation of "idiot" from--to make it modern--someone who "is too busy to follow the news" struck me as priceless. An idiot gets his news from John Stewart, to be faithful to the Greek root.

(The advantages of having a retired classicist as one's father-in-law is free Greek lessons. But he doesn't babysit the grandkids.)
11.13.2007 8:31pm
Latinist:
neurodoc:
For another example, I believe "brave" comes originally from the latin "pravus," "perverse, vicious" (also the root of "depraved"). I think it comes by way of something like the Italian "bravi" of the seventeenth (?) century or so, who were more or less roving gangs of thugs: vicious, but also courageous. (And in Italian, of course, "bravo" comes to mean "good" more generally.)

(warning: I'm getting this information from one conversation with someone who wasn't really an expert, plus the novel I Promessi Sposi. So I can't vouch too strongly for it.)
11.13.2007 8:42pm
Hoosier:
"For another example, I believe "brave" comes originally from the latin "pravus," "perverse, vicious" (also the root of "depraved"). I think it comes by way of something like the Italian "bravi" of the seventeenth (?) century or so, who were more or less roving gangs of thugs: vicious, but also courageous."

This is why I find etymologies so interesting: In German, "brav" means something along the lines of "well-behaved," or "honest." That's about as far from the root as one can get. (Unless they both come from Indo-European rootword that means something different than either of these, in which case the German may not have trasformed into its antonym. I have no idea about I-E.)
11.13.2007 8:49pm
Ziusudra (mail):
Of course, this means that Latin had two verbs that can be translated to "to know" in English.

Gnoscere, from Proto-Indo-Euro root gno- which ultimately gave English the word "know" among others. Had a meaning closer to "to be aware of; to have knowledge of" and gave us words such as "ignorant" and "ignore."

Scire, which seems to have undergone it's own transformation from the PIE root skie- and gave us the word "science" among others. (Possibly influenced by the Greek syneidesis.) The PIE root meant "to split" and ultimately gave us "schism" by way of the Greek skhisma. Seems to have had a meaning closer to "to understand; to derive knowledge."

Which gives the Latin nescius a meaning closer to "not-understanding" rather than "not-knowing."

So, judging by all that and the French meanings, the original meaning of "nice" in English would have been much closer to "stupid" than "ignorant." (Though, as to whether it implied an inability to understand is a topic for another day.)
11.13.2007 11:57pm
Marc :
nice
11.14.2007 1:34am
Fub:
I think Harold Pinter wrung out this semantic shift fairly thoroughly in The Birthday Party.

I can't hear the word "nice" without thinking of fried bread and existential angst.
11.14.2007 1:53am
Drake (mail) (www):
So ignorance really is bliss.
11.14.2007 10:10am
Alejandro (mail) (www):
@Ziusudra: The distinction survives in many languages: Spanish conocer/saber, French connaitre/savoir, and probably others I don't know. The verb derived from "gnoscere" is used for knowledge of things and people; the one from "scire" for knowledge of facts. The distinction is between "knowing X" (being familiar with X) and "knowing that p" (with p a statement).
11.14.2007 2:00pm
Stash:
"Trendy" was derogatory before it became a selling point.
11.14.2007 4:49pm
Toby:
This conversation is "special"
11.14.2007 10:10pm
Jack Schaedel (mail) (www):
Monkey tastes Def when you pour it on ice
Come on y'all it's time to get [lascivious] nice

Beastie Boys, Brass Monkey
11.16.2007 12:10am