February 28, 2012

Words of the Month - That's Nice, Dear

A meticulous carving of the silly Catherine in her quaint dress... 
        Over the centuries many, if not most, words experience shifts in meaning.  As generations go by some words get used in fewer situations, others in more, and the definitions gradually change slightly.  But some words experience more seismic changes, their meanings getting wrenched out of all recognition.  Here's one with a particularly convoluted development.

nice - (adj.) pleasing, agreeable, kind… 
or is it?
        The word entered English from French around 1290, with the meaning foolish, stupid.  Within forty years it had added the meaning wanton, lascivious.  A  century later it was being used to mean strange or rare.  Connotations of extravagant dress seem to have led to a range of related meanings from effeminate to luxurious to delicate… And here's where things start to get really strange.  We also get the meaning coy, shy in a word that had also been used for wanton and extravagant.  By 1550 the word nice is being used to mean fastidious, dainty, both in the negative sense of picky and the positive sense of refined.  Along with that the word could mean precise, scrupulous, having or requiring great precision or accuracy…  In the latter half of the eighteenth century the meaning generalizes to something like our modern sense of pleasing, agreeable, and in the first half of the nineteenth century we see kind.
        Already by Jane Austen's day the word had its current reputation of near-mean-inglessness, as seen in the following conversation from Northanger Abbey (c 1803).


     "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."

        From stupid to kind, from wanton to shy, from effeminate to precise and accurate, the word nice has done it all…  and in its attempts to be all things to all people, has ended up meaning practically nothing.

        Here are a few more words that have undergone radical changes in definition.
meticulous - originally meant fearful, timid, but three centuries later meant precise about details
quaint - originally meant cunning, proud, ingenious, but nearly 400 years later meant old-fashioned but charming
silly - Following a trajectory in some ways the opposite of nice, silly originally meant blessed, happy.  The meaning moved from there to innocent, to harmless, to weak, to feeble-minded, foolish.  The sense may have been altered by euphemism in the same way that the word special is gaining a similar secondary meaning today.

        Though sometimes strange, shifts in word meanings can be illuminating about the culture and attitudes of speakers.
        And isn't that nice?

[Pictures: "Catherine meets Henry," woodcut by Joan Hassall;
"He talked of foregrounds, distances, and second-distances," woodcut by Hassall,
both from Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen, Folio Society edition, 1960 or 1975.]

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