I love words. They’re everywhere, and each one has an entertaining back-story. Out of the many things I’ve learned working at Scripted, nothing has been more cemented in my mind than this fact.
The beauty of it is how easily words can acquire new meanings while simultaneously retaining some of the feeling of their previous definition. To make matters even better, several words will evolve until they’re nearly antonyms of their previous selves.
Let’s look at a classic example, the word “nice”. Everyone wants to be nice, right? Growing up, every parent encourages their children to be nice to others. Consequently, it’s a pretty safe bet to say that being nice is a good thing.
If that’s the case, then why is being considered nice a death sentence to any love struck boy? Why do nice guys keep finishing last? Obviously every teenage boy wants to be “cool”, but is it really impossible to be cool and nice? According to most movies, yes, it is. If you want some proof, just watch any cliché ‘90s rom-com. The lead girl will almost always explain that the nerdy guy is “really nice” before shooting him down.
Unfortunately for “nice”, the word has grown up with an incredibly negative connotation, just like that nerdy rom-com boy. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the first written use of the word “nice” in English was in 1290, meaning “foolish, stupid senseless.” At it’s best, being nice meant you were fairly dimwitted.
If you keep reading through the list of definitions in the OED, “nice” slowly begins to take a more positive spin in the 13th century by transitioning from “stupid” to “timid” and “careful”. With this point, it starts to be a bit more clear why a teenage boy can’t be nice and cool. After all, according to the OED, “cool” often meant something was “calmly audacious”. In other words, cool boys are calm and collected, while nice boys are scared and frightened. Luckily for nice boys, after several more centuries, the word finally begins to settle as “kind” and “thoughtful” in the 1830s.
The beautiful thing about language is that there’s really no way we can predict where it’ll end up next. Who’s to say being nice won’t mean something incredibly different 100 years from now? If it can go from “dumb” to “thoughtful” in just over 500 years, it could just as easily go from “thoughtful” to “genius” in the same amount of time. Who knows, with a little bit of luck, nice guys might even win a few races.
Photo used under creative commons from Fr. Dougal McGuire