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Saturday, 1 August 2015

Being nice

There is always a risk, when we consider statements that are more than a few hundred years old, that some of the key words may have altered drastically in the interim, changing the meaning entirely.

When King James II commented that the new St Paul's Cathedral in London was "amusing, awful and artificial", should Sir Christopher Wren have slipped out the back and slit his throat? Not a bit of it: the monarch was merely observing that he considered the building to be pleasing, awe-inspiring and skilfully achieved, and no insult or criticism was intended.

In Richard II, Shakespeare has John of Gaunt say:

Gaunt am I for the grave, gaunt as a grave,
Whose hollow womb inherits nought but bones.

This prompts King Richard to ask "Can sick men play so nicely with their names?" but this is no praise, as we shall see. In the Reeve's Tale in the Canterbury Tales, Chauce writes "This miller smyled of hir nycetee", which we might be tempted to take to mean he smiled at their nicety, but a more accurate rendering is that he smiled at the simplicity of the two scholars he planned to swindle.

That aside, most of the time when Chaucer uses 'nice', he means foolish, for that was the original meaning of the term. We get this word from the Latin nescius, meaning ignorant or unknowing, with the prefix ne- meaning not, and the -scius reminding us of words like scientia, knowledge, or even science. So originally a nice person was somebody who knew nothing, a fool, in other words.

Then began the slow progression of this word to its present meaning of somebody who is inoffensively pleasant. After the simple meaning of 'foolish' that Chaucer has as the primary meaning, the word came to indicate people who are foolishly concerned about particular things, and then it became fastidious and precise, and after that, we might have spoken of somebody being nice in their dress, with no hint of praise intended.

At the time when King Richard spoke to John of Gaunt, though, only one meaning would have existed, but Shakespeare's audience would have understood 'nicely' here to mean something like delicately, or with precision, a sense we preserve today when we speak of somebody making a nice point, or performing something to a nice degree. In the same way, we may speak of somebody having a nice sense of discrimination or honour.

Piero della Francesca?
Finally, it came to our modern sense of 'pleasantly agreeable', and it is a term that is commonly applied to people of a religious persuasion, church-going Christians who might look at Piero della Francesca's Resurrection and admire it greatly. These are people who would admire Piero for depicting himself as one of the sleeping guards outside Christ's tomb, and who would glory in the nice precision with which Piero had identified himself by showing his goitre, an outgrowth of the thyroid gland, caused by a lack of iodine in the diet.

While people closer to the sea got enough seafood to provide the iodine they needed, in some areas, people never saw the sea, and food from the sea could not reach them before it went rotten — unless it was preserved in some way, like anchovies. Seafood was expensive, and so many people went without, and developed goitres as a result.

In extreme cases, iodine deficiency and the goitrous condition can bring about a degree of simplicity and gentleness that was seen by their luckier compatriots as like that of the Christians, or chr├ętiens as the French-speakers in alpine areas called them. That is one version of the origin — the other is that the goitrous were recognised as still being humans with Christian souls, as opposed to the brutes of creation, unbaptised, but incapable of sin.

Either way, the more goitrous among them became known as chr├ętiens, or crestins, and so we got our word 'cretins', now generally misapplied as no more than a term of abuse. Once, though, cretins were a group who were at once nice in both the original and in the more modern sense. If the cretins had been uniformly naughty, though, would that have been a case of a regional sin?

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