Skip to main content

Hello. It looks like you’re using an ad blocker that may prevent our website from working properly. To receive the best experience possible, please make sure any blockers are switched off and refresh the page.

If you have any questions or need help you can email us

Yet another way to aggravate language pedants

NICE VIEW: the French Riviera city of Nice. The word 'nice' has undergone significant changes over the years - Credit: Universal Images Group via Getty

PETER TRUDGILL takes on the linguistic purists once again for their attachment to words’ ‘true’ meanings

There are some pedantic people around who reckon that it is wrong to use the word aggravate to mean ‘irritate, vex’ or ‘annoy’ – as in “please stop doing that, it’s very aggravating!”

This is probably the most common usage of the word in modern English, but some pedants believe that it is “incorrect” because aggravate comes originally from Latin aggravare, which meant ‘to make heavier’, derived from the adjective gravis, ‘heavy’, which has also given us grave, ‘very serious’ and gravity.

Aggravate was originally borrowed from Latin into English – our first written record of the word is from 1530 – with the meaning of ‘to make more serious’, and we do of course still use the word in this way, as in “that will only aggravate the situation”. But aggravate very quickly gained the additional meaning ‘annoy’, which was first recorded as long ago as 1598: pedants must have been unhappy about this usage for more than four hundred years now.

The cause of their discontent stems from their adherence to the etymological fallacy, which I have written about before: this is the erroneous belief that the original meaning of a word is its only “true” meaning. For example, some pedants fallaciously maintain that it is wrong to talk about “three alternatives” because alternative is derived from the Latin word alter, which meant ‘second’. It is therefore “only possible to have two alternatives” – which makes absolutely no sense to most native English speakers, who can quite happily talk about many more than just three alternatives.

When I was at secondary school, we had a teacher who greatly disliked the way we used the word nice – and of course we used it a lot. He used to reprimand us by intoning the mantra “nice means precise”.

It is true, of course, that nice can mean something like ‘precise’ – it is possible to  talk about “a nice distinction”, meaning a fine, delicate, precise distinction. But that is definitely not how most people speaking everyday colloquial English would most often use this word.

The history of the word nice provides a very good – in fact, a very nice – illustration of how misguided the etymological fallacy can be. Nice originally comes from two ancient Indo-European roots: *ne meaning ‘not’; and *skei meaning ‘cut’, which came down into Latin as the verb scire, ‘to know’, probably via a meaning like ‘be able to distinguish one thing from another’.

The combination of the two forms produced the Latin verb ne-scire, which meant ‘to be ignorant of’. The adjective derived from this was nescius, ‘ignorant’, which came down into Old French as nice, which had the meaning ‘silly’.

Nice was then borrowed from French into mediaeval English with the meaning ‘foolish’ but then also ‘shy’. Over the centuries the meaning gradually changed, first from ‘shy’ to ‘modest’, and then to ‘delicate’ (with the ‘precise’ meaning coming from this). When applied to people, the ‘delicate’ meaning gradually morphed into ‘considerate’, followed by ‘pleasant’, and finally ‘agreeable’.

It is fascinating to observe the extent to which the meaning of a word like nice can change over the course of 6,000 years. There may perhaps still be people like our schoolteacher who get very aggravated by the most usual, modern usage of nice. But surely no one in their right mind would want to argue that the “real” meaning of nice is, or ought to be, ‘not cutting’? 

Equally, there is no reason for people to get aggravated about the way in which Latin aggravare has changed its meaning, or added to its range of meanings in English, over the centuries.

Interestingly, the neologism, aggro, ‘trouble, bother, inconvenience, annoyance’, arose relatively recently as a modified abbreviation of aggravation. The first recorded usage of this form dates from 1969, and very soon led to a new meaning, as the Oxford English Dictionary has it, of ‘deliberate troublemaking, violent behaviour, harassment’.

Harass

Harass arrived in English from French in the 1600s. Where the French word originally came from is not certain, but its French origin explains why Americans pronounce it with the stress on the second syllable: they do the same thing with debris, ballet, baton and garage. Presumably, they think it sounds more French. 

What do you think? Have your say on this and more by emailing letters@theneweuropean.co.uk