Monday, December 24, 2018

Nice And Naughty

Dan Lewis, Now I Know:
The word "nice" comes from the Latin word "nescius" which literally meant "not knowing" — basically "ignorant." When the word was coined in the 14th century, it retained that meaning — according to Oxford Dictionaries, the word "nice" "began life in the fourteenth century as a term for 'foolish' or 'silly.'" It was, unambiguously, an insult, which in a roundabout way, is how it got to this catch-all way to give faint praise today.

For its first generation of use, the denotative meaning (let's go with "foolish") held firm, but in time, that gave way to the word's negative connotation. Before the 14th century was out, people began using "nice" as a one-size-fits-all insult; as Huffington Post describes, the word "was used to refer to a variety of less-than-great sentiments including wantonness, extravagance, ostentation, lasciviousness, cowardice and sloth."

As the Middle Ages waned, so did the breadth of the term. The word "nice" became increasingly about laziness and less about extravagance, which is still not very nice, but less so than before. Still, that wasn't enough for the word's meaning to change to something lukewarmly positive. But we were long on our way. Lazy people were also seen as reserved, private, and demure, and, the word "nice" became somewhat of a neutral term. Huffington Post summarized it like this: "Dive deeper into the Middle Ages, and the meaning deflated. The word started to hint not at ostentation or cowardice but shyness and reserve; not in a negative way, but certainly not yet positively."

Of course, that changed. With the emergence of the Enlightenment, people liked their elites more reserved, more, say, "ladylike," and the word "nice" accurately described these people. As a result, "nice" became the word of praise (faint as it may be) it is today.

Bonus fact: The word "naughty" has a similarly muddled history, and one which may reflect on how we, by default, often blame those in poverty for their situation. It literally means "having nothing" — someone with "naught". The negative connotation came later, as GOOD Magazine explains: "In the 1300s, naughty people had naught (nothing); they were poor or needy. By the 1400s, the meaning shifted from having nothing to being worth nothing, being morally bad or wicked."


laura k said...

What about the origin of noice?

allan said...


The exact origins of noice as a form of nice are unclear, as noice is a written representation of nice spoken in a British (particularly Cockney or Norfolk) or Australian accent. Charles Dickens wrote some characters saying nice as noice ("'Ye be noice chaps,' said John, looking steadily round. 'What's to do here, thou yoong dogs?'" Nicholas Nickleby, 1838), and contemporary writers use the same spelling to indicate, if not stereotype, an Australian accent (such as the catchphrases of adventurer Steve Irwin and comedic Kath and Kim).
Despite noice's commonness in British and Australian English, Google search trends reveal three key moments in the recent evolution of noice in American English: In 2013, comedy duo Key and Peele released a sketch video titled Nooice about two dance video hype men falling in love after a fight over who owns the slogan noice. The skit became one of the most popular they released, which tightened the association between the word and the comedy duo.
In 2015, a video (published in 2013) featuring English author Michael Rosen saying noice went viral, with more than 12-million views on the original video to date. Pictures and gifs of this video have become a meme, of which stickers and other merchandise can be bought. Also in 2015, Andy Samberg's character on Brooklyn Nine-Nine took the slogan noice for his own, leading to a later spike in 2016. The term came to be associated with his character and with the show in general.