You might think you are totally familiar with the meaning of the terms “naughty or nice,” but you’re probably wrong (I certainly was)…in this holiday edition of Etymology for Goth Polyglots, we explore what it has meant across time to be naughty or nice, and the irony hidden within this Hobson’s choice.

Naughty little Diana makes Santa get out of the sleigh so she could drive.
Naughty little Diana made Santa get out of the sleigh so she could drive.

Wait, Santa, there’s nothing on this list.

You probably know that the term “naught” means “zero” or “nothing.” That’s why I legitimately refer to the decade spanning 2001 through 2009 as “the naughties,” not because of a personal life phase. Naught probably stems from the PIE root word ne meaning “not” and wekti meaning “thing” (“not thing” is the Poetry for Neanderthals-acceptable version of the concept, all right). Possibly Old English nawiht may have contributed or been involved, as wight used to refer to a living creature or being, before it evolved to refer to a type of ghostly supernatural creature. Nawiht (or neowiht, the Old Saxon version) would refer to the concept of nothing or nobody.

In the late 14th century, the word “naught” spawned the adjective nowghty, noughti, referring to someone who has nothing. Nowghty was basically a synonym of “penniless.” Around the 16th century, the term took on a moral tone. Instead of having nothing, the term morphed to mean something more like “good for nothing.” The aristocracy viewed (or views?) the poor as lawless and malignant in nature. The upper class took to using the word “naughty” to describe a poor person who was poor because they were morally corrupt and therefore prone to committing crimes (certainly not the other way around).

Naughty becomes etymologically sexy…in a degrading way, of course.

Like all words that evolved a concomitant meaning for moral corruptitude, the word eventually expanded to describe women’s sexuality. “Naughty” as an adjective (or “naughty pack” as a noun) came to solidly refer to a sexually promiscuous woman after the 1860’s. The word’s harsh judgy tone eased through the decades, however, the more it applied to children. Now when “naughty” describes sexuality, it’s more in fun than in serious damnation. I’m guessing that’s sort of partially reclaiming the derogatory term as one of empowerment. It might be fun to point that out at office Christmas parties to up the awkwardness in the room. The patriarchy hates awkward etymology even more than it hates a naughty pack.

Is being nice really any better than being naughty?

But ironically, our favorite antonym for “naughty” also evolved using the same PIE root word ne. Add ne to scire (“to know”), and you get the Latin nescius, which means “ignorant.” From nescius blossoms the Old French nice, meaning “clumsy; weak; poor, needy (again!); simple, stupid, or foolish.” (c. 1100s).

Did you catch that?! That very word with that basic meaning entered the English language as the word “nice.” At the time, “nice” basically referred to a person who is impoverished and needy because (s)he is weak (perhaps morally) and foolish. The etymology of “nice” eerily crosses paths with the 16th century definition of the word “naughty.”

But I thought “nice” was supposed to be a good thing.

“Nice” has perhaps always been one of those English words that everyone uses, but whose meaning is slippery. “Nice” just keeps evolving in unpredictable and inconsistent ways, like a coveted Pokémon. Over the past millennium, the meaning of “nice” has morphed from “simple and needy,” to mean “senseless and weak” (c. 1200s); then to “fastidious” (c. 1300s.); then to “dainty” (c. 1400s); then to “precise, careful” (c. 1500s); then to “agreeable” (c. 1700s); and finally to “kind, thoughtful” (c. 1800s through today). English speakers since the 20th century have used “nice” mostly as a throwaway term with little meaning. Yet the word’s evolution hints at a moral judgement in its subtext, just not quite as finger-wagging as its more explicit counterpart “naughty.”

Santa, it's a long story.

You’d better not pout; this is all your fault.

So, deep down, it seems like Santa’s infamous list really doesn’t sift the good from the bad, but merely into different flavors of degenerates. According to what we learned in our etymology lesson today, if you’re “naughty,” you’re trapped in poverty because you’re a sexually deviant criminal. But if you’re “nice,” you’re trapped in poverty because you’re a faint-hearted simpleton. Forgive us, Santa, but if we’re all going to the same Hell, we’d rather climb aboard the party-handbasket.