I suppose I must have been about 10 years old. There I was, sitting in an English class, when the teacher – I believe it may have been Mrs. Brown – told our class the news. Standing in front of the milky blackboard, she uttered a statement that changed my life.
“The word ‘nice’ means ‘potbellied,'” she said. Just like that. Of course I’m looking back at that statement now with a mixture of wonder, respect, and faint self-chastisement. Chances are that I totally misheard what she said. I was probably whispering to a friend, or watching the clock, waiting for its sleepy hands to open wider and release me to the playground. Chances are she said, “Imagine the word ‘nice’ means ‘potbellied.'”
Regardless, I took that statement at face value. I stopped using the word. Every time I went to describe my weekend outing as nice, my new toy as nice, a dinner, dog or my daddy as nice, I would be pulled up short by the unsavory image of a sagging, bulging belly, slouching over the top of a too-tight pair of trousers. All of which was, I now suspect, the whole point.
I don’t know about when you were young, but in my little primary school, pupils were not well-known for their use of the palette of adjectives. I can see Mrs. Brown now, slumped in a dining room chair, surrounded by her class’s composition notebooks, open and dog-eared, spilling the word “nice” across her kitchen table. I can imagine her frustration as she red-inked over the offensive word again and again, replacing it with something offering just a little more sparkle. Perhaps bitter desperation drove her to hoodwink her charges.
All I can tell you is that I believed her. I’m almost certain that no one else remembers this the way I do. Yet I was well into adulthood when still avoiding the word. Even the guffaws and condescension that met my occasional oblique inquiries of others never fully convinced me I had been had. Even now, as I confess to this, I half expect tomorrow’s bag of mail to the Bangor Daily News to contain at least one missive pointing out that “nice” has its roots in some Old English word – nycce or the like – that means “pleasantly rounded in the abdomen.”
But it doesn’t matter. Maybe I was fibbed to in class, by a frustrated veteran of the language who had come to the end of her tether. Maybe I just had a tutor who knew more about etymology than anyone else I’ve ever met. Either way, whether she ever realized or not, she made me into one person who declined that bland word for years afterward, and I’ve never held that against her. In fact, I think it was rather a nice thing for her to do.
Originally from London, England, Adam Corrigan works in the NEWS Internet department and occasionally reviews CDs and cookbooks for the Style section.