Tag Archives: George Eliot

A quirk of language – how ‘nice’ once meant the same as a swear word!

6 Dec
Extent of indo-european languages

Image via Wikipedia

(Warning – contains a swear word)

I remembered one of the classic wording pairings over the weekend …

Left long enough, any language evolves in very strange ways – and perhaps none more than the pairing of ‘nice’ and (*ahem*) the word ‘shit’, both of which originate from the same source.

The guilty parent is thought to be a proto-Indo-European word ‘*skei’, which is believed to have meant split, cut, slice or cleave.

Now, to be clear, there’s no written or spoken record of any proto Indo-European.  It is a purely hypothesized language, believed to be the common ancestor of the wide group of languages that belong in the Indo-European family.  This family spans most (but not all) languages spoken in Europe and the Indian sub-continent; see here for Wikipedia’s list.

The theory runs that as early people travelled out of Africa, and then slowly split up, moving to different regions, the original language they once shared also evolved, resulting in a whole group of related languages.

It was as early as the 1500s, European travellers noted similarity between some of the languages they heard in India with the languages they heard, or had learned, back home.  But the heyday of this field of study was in the 1800s; even the character Edward Casaubon in George Eliot’s Middlemarch (published 1871-2) is trying to work on a ‘key to all mythologies’, pointing to this sudden growth of understanding in common roots.

So, if we take the word *skei, we can see that, over time, it has evolved into a number of words, many of which have kept closely to the sense of ‘split, cut, splice or cleave’.

Tools for cutting:

  • Scissors
  • Scythe
  • Shears

The result of cutting:

Schism – a major division, such as a ‘schism in the Church’

Schedule – to separate out one’s time

Scar – the side effect of a cut

Schist – a type of mineral that can be easily split

Ship – some people also argue ‘ship’ comes from this root, as a ship would have originally been carved out of a tree trunk.

Schizophrenia – a mental illness resulting in ‘separate’ personalities.

Ski – ski comes from an Old Norse word meaning to separate one piece of wood from another

And, as mentioned:

Shit – the word makes some sense in this context as the act of defecation involves separating one matter from another.

Interestingly, there are a whole group of words relating to knowledge that derive from this root, arguably because knowledge is, in part, the ability to distinguish and categorise things.

  • Skill
  • Science
  • Omniscience
  • Conscience

The latter three words all derive from the Latin verb ‘scire’, which meant ‘to know’.

The opposite of ‘scire’ was ‘nescire’ – not knowing, and it is from here that the word ‘nice’ was originally thought to derive.  The verb turned into an adjective, nescius, with the meaning of ‘ignorant’.   After the Norman conquest, the word came into English from French as ‘nice’, and while the spelling has remained largely constant, over time, the meaning changed to ‘foolish’ or ‘shy’, and then into ‘moderate’, ‘reserved’ and by the time of Jane Austen in the early 1800s, ‘nice’ meant ‘exacting’ or ‘precise’.

Nice has then evolved to the modern meaning of ‘pleasant’ or ‘agreeable’ – but, interestingly, is almost coming full circle as an insult as we increasingly use it to mean something is banal or bland.

So, take one hypothesized word, *skei, add 6,000 years, and you end up with an interesting muddle!