N is for…

Santa's Naughty List

Welcome to another instalment of my Vocabulary Series! This week, we’re going to look at some nifty words beginning with the letter N.

This first word is one I hold dear to my heart—probably because I heard it so often as a child!

Naughty (adjective)

Etymology:   First appears in the late 1300s as naugti, meaning needy or having nothing. Comes from the Old English nawiht, meaning nothing. Its use to describe something wicked or evil is first seen in the 1520s. Its use to describe something related to sex is first seen in 1869. And its use to describe disobedience, particularly in children, is first seen in the 1630s. Interestingly, from the 1500s to the 1700s, a woman of bad character was sometimes referred to as a naughty pack.

Definition:  Disobedient or badly behaved (especially pertaining to children); related to sex in a rude or funny way; wicked.

Example:  When Santa added another name to his naughty list, the Xmas gremlins chortled in anticipation; they couldn’t wait to visit all the naughty children on Christmas Eve.

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Of course, given that Santa is lurking just around the corner, we couldn’t talk about naughty if we didn’t also talk about its opposite. The etymological evolution of this word is fascinating, as you will see. Also, I now understand why it drives one of my editor friends crazy.

Nice (adjective)

Etymology:   First appears in the late 1200s, meaning foolish, stupid, or senseless. Comes from the Old French nice, meaning careless, clumsy, weak, needy, simple, or foolish. That, in turn, comes from the Latin nescius, meaning ignorant or unaware.

The meaning of nice started out as “foolish or stupid,” but became “timid” before the end of the 1200s. In the late 1300s, it meant “fussy or fastidious.” In the 1400s it meant “dainty or delicate.” From there it was used to mean “precise or careful” in the 1500s, “agreeable or delightful” in the 1700s and “kind or thoughtful” in the 1800s. Very few words started out with such a vastly different meaning than nice.

Definition:   Pleasant, agreeable, satisfactory; kind or good-natured (of a person); slight or subtle (of a difference), requiring careful consideration; fastidious, scrupulous.

Example:  Vlad sighed. No matter how hard he worked to be nice, Santa always put him on the naughty list. Apparently feeding on the homeless isn’t the same as feeding the homeless.

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So, for this week’s bonus word, I chose another word with an interesting evolution that also happens to be a lot of fun to say.

Nimrod (noun)

Etymology:  First appears in the early 1700s, meaning great hunter, which came from to the biblical figure, Nimrod, who was the great-grandson of Noah and is referred to in Genesis as “a mighty hunter before the Lord.” Its more common modern use to describe someone who is geeky and inept is owed to teenagers of 1983, and no one is really sure why they chose that word. Of course, if you know any teenagers (or remember being one) you’ll probably agree that much of what they do is a mystery. But it really does sound like the kind of word a teenager would spit out disdainfully, doesn’t it?

Definition:  An inept person; a skilful hunter.

Example:  Griswold was absolutely magnificent when he turned into a werewolf, but he was a total nimrod in his human form.

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As always, etymological information and definitions come from a combination of the Oxford Dictionary of Etymological English, the Oxford Dictionaries Online, and the Online Etymology Dictionary.

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Image credit: Google Images

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10 thoughts on “N is for…

  1. Oh, I always just love the Vocabulary Series!!! So interesting how words take on different meanings over the centuries. Amazing about ‘nice’, and I loved the example you cited. I also like ‘nimrod’, although I’m sure we used to say it before 1983.

    Also, I am not fond of naughty children, but I love naughty girls.

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