Friday, March 02, 2007

Gonna Find Out Who's Naughty & Nice

Determining who’s been naughty and who’s been nice is the province of Santa Claus, and his job is much easier than it once was. Naughty and nice are mitigated terms in the sense that they once bore markedly stronger meanings. (The Latin word mitis meant mild, mellow, or soft.) These days, naughty is a rather tepid form of childish disobedience, and nice is an insipid compliment.

Oddly enough, naughty and nice once had identical meanings. Around 1400, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, nice meant “characterized by or encouraging wantonness or lasciviousness.” Correlatively, in the late 16th and early 17th century, naughty meant “immoral, licentious, promiscuous, sexually provocative.” Naughty or nice, you were a lecher.

Naughty started out meaning having nothing, based on the concept of naught. It progressed to uncontrollable, vicious wickedness--quite a leap. Ultimately, that was watered down to the level of mischief. Along the way, it took a detour for a while, referring to food or drink of inferior--even dangerous--quality:

KJV, Jeremiah 24:2 “One basket had very good figs, even like the figs that are first ripe:
and the other basket had very naughty figs, which could not be eaten, they were so bad.”

Nice originally meant that a person was foolishly ignorant, not a compliment at all. Applied to an action, it meant absurd and silly. As I mentioned above, it wandered into licentiousness at one point. Then it signified precision and punctiliousness, with culture and refinement as a sidebar. That degenerated into cowardly and effeminate, but was rescued when the meaning shifted to skillful, discriminating, and attentive to details. Unlike naughty figs, nice food or drink was tasty and restorative. Before degenerating into its current blandness, it meant kind and friendly.

Quite a journey for both words.

SIDEBAR: two songs by naughty

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