Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Nice, Mean, Fine, Rude.

Here are some words we have run across in old books, that have different meanings in older writings than we attach to them today.

Have you ever said something was "nice?" Used in our time it can mean that someone is very kind:

"What a nice neighbor you have! She bakes you cookies!"

or that something is admirable and you really like it:

"Wow! That new haircut looks really nice on you!"

 or that something was good enough but you'd rather not commit yourself to warm praise:

"Honey, what do you think of this dress with the giant flowers and frogs jungle print on me?"
"It's nice."
"What did you think of the pie I made tonight-- did it need more sugar?"
"It was nice."

The latest use that is in vogue rather annoys me-- that is the long, drawn out, Niiiiiicccce that really means nothing at all.

"What have you been up to lately?"
"Doing lots of studying for tests in school" (rolls eyes)

In olden days, "Nice" was more likely to mean something close to "picky." "She was too nice" did not mean that the lady was a very kind, amiable personage. It meant that she was  particular in her tastes, and in this case too particular, and perhaps that was not a good trait. To be "nice" in your eating would have meant to be particular with your food, or maybe picky with the kinds of food you would eat, but it did not mean that you had perfectly polite table manners.

Why should we care about all that old usage? Because we will get the wrong idea if we come across this word in old literature, unless we know all the facets of it.

When They Were Young: Marconi - Inventor of Wireless

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Another word is "mean." We perhaps think of someone that is "mean" as the opposite of someone that is "nice."

"Bobby is just so mean-- he threw my ball into the mud."

In the olden days, "mean" could indicate something rough, base, crude-- as in a "mean hut."  Perhaps Bobby is poor and lives in a mean hut-- a shack where the porch is about to fall off and the roof leaks when it rains. He eats a mean meal from a mean table-- and that makes him cranky or cruel.

Girl Stands in a Field Reading Her Book

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"Fine" is another word that has many meanings. Most often, I hear it when people ask, "How are you?"

"I'm fine."

Used in that way, it means you are well, or that you really don't want to say, so it covers everything from exceptionally well to just feeling rather blah. I've heard it used this way:

"I'm finer than frog's hair."

That is actually a reference to an old use of the word "fine," which meant very small, minute, thin, or delicate. If you can see frog's hair you would be seeing something very "fine."

The word is also used in old literature to mean something good, beautiful  or commendable--

"What a fine watch!"

"She has fine manners."

"It is a fine afternoon!" (meaning a lovely day)

As well as something extraordinary:

"He had seen, he thought, all the finest structures in the world, and the finest of them all was our own Palace of Westminster." -an old architecture book

The Beach

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"Rude" hasn't changed in one meaning, if you are speaking of a ruffian who is without manners. However sometimes in old books the other meanings are used. "Rude" can mean rough or rugged, and "rudely" can mean not very well done. For instance, a wooden board crookedly sawed by someone unskilled with tools may be "rudely cut," and if it wasn't sanded smooth it could be called a "rude" board. The person who sawed it may not be rude, but his work may turn out to be rude!

An Interior with a Girl Reading at a Desk

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(An online Webster's 1828 dictionary can be found here. It is a very valuable reference when reading books over 100 years old.)

("School Days" title painting by Myles Foster Birket)
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