Occasionally you will encounter someone with an etymological axe to grind. They insist that a certain word has to mean just what it meant hundreds of years ago when it was first spoken: For example, that decimate has to mean “kill exactly one tenth.” This is what’s known as the etymological fallacy. If you don’t feel like arguing with the person, here are 11 reasons you can just respond with “Nice!”
These days, we often say “Nice!” sarcastically to mean “That’s really ignorant!” If we traced the word nice back to its source, though, it wouldn’t be sarcastic at all. Today’s bland sense of “good” comes from the meaning “precise, fastidious” (still sometimes used, as in “a nice distinction”), which in turn came from a use in the 1400s to mean “overrefined, excessively delicate,” which was a narrowing down of the broader sense “foolish,” which is the meaning it had when it came into English via French from Latin. But the Latin original was nescius, which literally means “unknowing, ignorant.” And here we’ve all been using it without knowing where it came from. Nice!
So okay, nice comes from “ignorant.” Well, ignorance is bliss, right? Sure, and so is silliness… historically, at least. Silly started out as Old English sælig, “happy, blissful, fortunate” and by the 1200s it had gained the sense “blessed, pious,” which expanded to “innocent,” and then shifted to “pitiable” and so also “insignificant, poor.” By the 1500s it was being used to mean “ignorant, foolish,” and from there we got our more innocuous modern senses of “inane” and “giddy.”
Boy, meanings can really get warped, huh? It can really throw a person. Like the word warp, which comes from Old English weorpan “throw” (modern German has the related worfen). Something, perhaps the twisting motion your body makes when you really hurl a thing, led to this the modern sense of “twist, torque.” Well, warped is “thrown out of alignment,” right?
So why didn’t they just use throw to mean “throw”? Because — wait for it! — throw originally meant “twist.” Yeah, that’s right. That twisting motion your body makes when throwing? It may have led to this word for “twist” coming to mean “toss” — trading places with warp. If you’re wondering how people clearly spoke of the throwing motion while throw and warpwere twisting around each other, the answer is that they mainly used cast.
Is this all beginning to look clouded, in an “up is down” kind of way? Fair enough — cloud has gone from down to up. The original word, clud, meant “hill, mass of rock” (incidentally, in some parts of England rolling hills are called downs). The related word clod still shows something of this origin. But people looking up at hilly masses in the heavens decided that cloud was a good word to use on them. And now cloud can only mean that lofty mass of water vapor, while we have various other words for humps of earth.
If down is up, good is bad, right? Well, awesome is awful, anyway. The word awful originally meant something rather like “awesome.” Its Old English form, egefull, meant “causing dread”; as ege became awe and came to mean not just “dread” but “profound respect,” awful came to mean “commanding profound respect or fear.” In the 1600s, it could mean “sublimely majestic” and was uttered as high praise to such things as a great cathedral. But a slang usage of awful to mean “monstrous, frightful, very ugly” caught on in the 1800s, and now it’s the only way you can use the word. A shadow of the original sense can be seen in our use of awfully to mean “very.”
What next? Well, how about “breakfast is supper”? Sure. Dinner comes from French disner, which was digested down from Latin disjejunare, which meant “break the fast” — that is, start eating. It originally referred to the first meal of the day, but it came to refer to the main meal of the day. In some circles and contexts, dinner can still mean a main meal around noon or early afternoon, but, as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it, “the professional and fashionable classes” took to eating the largest meal in the evening — at the time, that meal was often called supper (which has always referred to the last meal of the day).
Next question: If you’re invited to a formal dinner, can you wear something jaunty? That might seem inappropriate for a white-tie sit-down, but a trip down etymology lane will save you again. Jaunty‘s meaning of “lively, brisk” comes from a sense of “airy, easy, unconcerned,” referring to the manners of the rich nobility. Go a bit farther back and, referring to the same people, it means “genteel.” Which is fair enough, because jaunty and genteel come from the same French word, gentil, which also gives us gentle (don’t forget gentleman). They all come from the “high-born, noble” sense and trace back to Latin’s gentilis, meaning “of the same family” — which, by the way, also gives us gentile and is related to a whole bunch of other gen words.
Not everyone was always impressed with the manners of the nobility, though. We may retain a certain respect for the kingly and lordly, but if we expand “ly” to all those called “sir” we run into sirly, which was respelled surly. At first it meant “lordly, majestic,” but then it got resentful and went downhill into “haughty, arrogant” and from that to “ill-tempered.”
If you’re finding it torture and hard work to keep up with how much the meanings of some words have traveled over the years, you’re on the right track. Travel traces back to a word meaning “hard work”: travail. That, in turn, traces back through French to Latin trepalium, which was an instrument of torture made of three stakes. From torture to hard work is an easy enough step in meaning. From hard work to voyaging? Today we might wonder why anyone could call going on vacation hard work, but a journey used to be an arduous thing.
Does all this make you doubt that there is any constancy in the meanings of words over time? Have no fear: Many words have gone unchanged in sense over the ages. One such is doubt… well, almost. Its source, Latin’s dubitare, meant “be uncertain in opinion,” and to this day, doubt is a state of uncertainty. But the orientation of that uncertainty has not stayed exactly the same over time. These days, if we say “I doubt that it’s so” it means “I feel it is unlikely to be so.” In former centuries, it could mean “I am uncertain whether it is so” or even “I am afraid it might be so.” So, for instance, in Sheridan’s often-performed play from 1777, The School for Scandal, when Sir Peter says “the worst of it is, I doubt I love her, or I should never bear all this,” he means the opposite of what you or I would mean: He means he is afraid that he probably does love her.
So remember: Whenever you encounter a word with a long history, it’s safe to doubt that the meaning has changed… or that it has stayed the same.