I ran across a rather interesting factrecently. The English word, “nice,” comes from a Latin word meaning “ignorant.”Etymology is always interesting, but this one seemed to be a road too far. Icouldn’t resist, so I did a little research. Here’s what I found.
“Five hundred years ago, when nice was first used in English, it meant ‘foolish or stupid.’ This is not as surprising as it may seem, since it came through early French from the Latin nescius, meaning “ignorant.” By the 16th century, the sense of being “very particular” or “finicky” had developed. In the 19th century, nice came to mean “pleasant or agreeable” and then “respectable,” a sense quite unlike its original meaning.”
I don’t know about you, but I find this to be a bit annoying. As a matter of fact, I find it to be a tad scary. How can we take a perfectly legitimate word and turn it into something entirely different? A time traveler could get himself into a slew of trouble if he wasn’t careful.
After I thought about it, though, I realized we do this sort of thing all the time. For example, when I was in college, people began to use the word “bad” the same way you and I would use the word “good.” If they heard a song they really liked, they would say something like, “That’s a really bad tune.” Unless you were attuned to their particular vocabulary, you would have thought they hated that music. Of course, you would have been entirely wrong.
These days, this seems to happen a lot in politics.I used to know what it meant to be a conservative or a liberal, for example. Nolonger. These words have been so skewed over the past few decades, I can’t tellwhat they mean anymore. This is great for politicians, because they can liethrough their teeth and come out smelling like a rose if they do it correctly.
That’s bad enough in and of itself. But what’s worse (at least in my view) is the way this kind of spin has worked its way into the church. We seem to have begun doing the same thing the politicians are doing. We’re taking terms and changing their meaning. And while people almost expect that sort of thing in the political realm, they often get blindsided when those tactics are applied in the spiritual realm.
It goes beyond mere terms as well. Sometimes, we’ll take Scripture and twist the meaning to fit our own narrative. You can hear things like, “Jesus said this, but what He really meant was _____ (feel free to fill in the blank). Really?
I’ve gotten to the place where I like to read a red-letter version (where the words of Jesus are printed in red) to remind me what His words really were. That way, when the word twisters start playing their game, I’m on it. Jesus’ words weren’t always nice, but they were never ignorant.
[Dave Zuchelli is a graduate of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and currently resides in Aldie, VA.]