The Nick Lezard controversy... new developments
8 minutes ago
Beside the word nescient in Dr. E’s Imaginary Dictionary stands an illustration of a bureaucrat, smug and smiling benignantly upon an ordinary citizen. The cross-reference reads: See Expert. The word means what you’d guess: the property of knowing absolutely nothing. In Latin, someone in that state, let’s say a simpleton or a senator, is nescius.
That word, through Old French, entered English as nice, meaning stupid, silly, ignorant, foolish. It was not a very nice word. But then it underwent a transformation. By the time of Spenser and Shakespeare, it had come to acquire the ambivalent sense of a usually foolish preciseness, as in our word niceties, generally suggesting an annoying emphasis on the trivial. In this regard it seems to have walked the same track as the word dainty, which Spenser usually employs to refer to something delicately beautiful, but sometimes to refer to people who are fussy or persnickety or unwholesomely preoccupied with cleanliness. But nice, in Spenser, is always an insult: nice hands will not get themselves bloody to help a dying man.
The association with unreasonable fussiness gradually changed, so that someone with keen insight can make a nice distinction; if at first that meant a distinction without a difference, made by a fool, it now means a fine distinction that makes a big difference, which only a wise person can make. Taking the word in another direction, though, the ladies began to use it to refer to something decorated in a pleasantly fussy way: a nice hat, a nice ribbon. From thence it has come to denote kindness generally, “He’s a nice man,” but with the possibility of hollowness and triviality lurking around the corner.
C. S. Lewis understood the word quite well, which is why, in That Hideous Strength, the N. I. C. E. (National Institute of Coordinated Experiments) is England’s metastatic locus of evil. For, as Lewis says, the angels do not bow before the Lord, singing, “Nice, nice, nice,” but “Holy, holy, holy!”
Save for those who ski or take vacations in the south, January and February are not the most charming months and they did not exist at all on the oldest Roman calendar, which had only ten months. Winter was a temporal vacuum and the less said about it the better. Only in the eighth century before Christ were they named as months. Eventually, January 1 marked the new year. In the Middle Ages, although the new year began on either the Annunciation or nine months later on Christmas, the old twelve month calendar obtained and January 1 became the official new year’s day again in the 16th century. Even so, right down to the present, judicial and fiscal calendars often relate to March 25.