Necio is nice and nice is necio.

The Latin verb scire meant ‘to know,’ so the noun that came from it, scientia, was ‘knowledge.’ We’ve carried that over as ciencia/science. The matching adjective is científico/scientific, which goes back to the 1300s in Spanish and the 1500s in English. Spanish also uses científico as a noun for what English calls a scientist, a word that the Rev. William Whewell coined in 1834 on the model of artist.

When Latin added a negative prefix to the root of scire, the result was the adjective nescius ‘not knowing, ignorant, unaware, not understanding.’ That evolved to Spanish necio, which can still mean ‘ignorant, stupid,’ but also, depending on the variety of Spanish, ‘foolish, rash, stubborn, peevish, hypersensitive.’ What all those senses have in common is that they are negative, which is hardly surprising, given that the Latin original was a negative. You may wonder why I’m bothering to point out the obvious. It’s to contrast the development in Spanish with what happened in English. Middle English borrowed the Old French descendant of nescius, which was nice, and in what may well be the craziest semantic storm in the history of the language, English has since used nice with an astonishing sequence of meanings, only to discard most of them before long.

Over the centuries, some of the meanings of nice have been: ‘ignorant, foolish, unimportant, trivial, silly, weak, tender, delicate, dainty, effeminate, elegant, over-refined, difficult to please, extravagant, loose-mannered, wanton, lascivious, strange, lazy, shy, subtle, precise, fine, able to discriminate to a high degree, carefully made, appetizing, agreeable, pleasing, good, kind, pleasant-looking, polite.’ The compilers of the Oxford English Dictionary were prompted to write, with characteristic British understatement: “The precise development of the very divergent senses which this word has acquired in English is not altogether clear.” The compilers also noted: “In many examples from the 16th and 17th centuries it is difficult to say in what particular sense the writer intended it to be taken.” How are we to know if a woman whom someone described as nice back then was a wallflower or a tart, since nice could mean either? It’s a good thing that the sense of promiscuity is totally gone now, or else the line in the Christmas song that says Santa’s “gonna find out who’s naughty or nice” might make children think that only the wicked get rewarded. And a native Spanish speaker might think: ¡Qué necio el inglés!

© 2010 Steven Schwartzman

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©2011–2016 Steven Schwartzman
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