Wednesday, September 05, 2007

David's Definitions for October 2007


A nicety is a small, important detail that can make a large difference. The word is commonly misused to mean an appealing characteristic, but in fact a nicety may not be nice in that sense. For example, knowing which knife and fork to use for which food at a formal banquet is one of the niceties of formal etiquette, but most of us would agree that such rules are silly, not nice. The confusion arises because the word nice, on which nicety is based, has changed meaning over time. The Latin word it comes from meant foolish or silly, but in English, in different centuries nice has meant timid, then dainty, then precise, then pleasant. Some of the older meanings survive. A subtle difference between two things is still called a nice distinction.

I'm collecting all of these at:


Oscar1986 said...

I never knew what that word really meant, and I use it every once in a while :)

David said...

I hope you've been using correctly. :)

I need to keep those definitions shortish. If not for that, I'd have said something about the word fine, which has also gone through various similar meanings. So something can be fine, meaning good. We can wear finery. But there's also a fine distinction, which means the same thing as a nice distinction.

I bet linguistics is a cool field, for people with enormous brains. I tried to read a fairly simple linguistics book once, and my head almost exploded.

alternatefish said...

hey, I learned something today! yay!

I tried to read a fairly simple linguistics book once, and my head almost exploded.

maybe that explains all the loud noises I keep hearing from the linguistics department...

David said...

I feel a crude joke coming on, but I'm refusing to let it take form in my mind.

It's hard, but I know I'll be a better man for it.

Probably wouldn't have been funny, anyway.

A Paperback Writer said...

I have never seen the word used in the singular, always the plural. funny thing, that.
And, as an example to your explanation of the varying meanings of the word nice over the years, in Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, when Friar John fails to deliver the letter to Romeo because he has been held back by the equivalent of health wardens, Friar Laurence bewails the situation by saying "The letter was not nice...." I always have to explain this line to my students, because they think he's saying the letter was rude when he's really saying it was not trivial.

David said...

paperback, that's a nifty example. A nice one, one could say, ho, ho.

One thing that always strikes me about performances of Shakespeare is that modern actors, including American ones, try to do the plays with that very RP stage accent, whereas they should probably try to talk like pirates. Even a standard somewhat southern American accent would probably be more accurate.