Accelerating fuzziness

Words are notoriously slippery customers. They might start life with one or two well-defined meanings, but they often take on additional meanings, and in some cases come to mean the opposite of what they meant originally. This process is referred to as “accelerating fuzziness” by Geoffry Finch in Word of Mouth – A New Introduction to Language and Communication, an interesting book I’m reading at the moment.

Here’s probably the best-known example of an English word that’s undergone accelerated fuzziness:

Nice, which originally meant foolish, currently means pleasant, commendable, kind, friendly, good, satisfactory, subtle, delicate, discrimminating, precise or skillful, is sometimes used to mean fastidious or respectable, and used to mean delicate, shy, modest or wanton. That’s a lot of meanings for such a small word! This is a word I was discouraged from using in English lessons. According to my teacher, nice is far too imprecise because it can mean so many different things. Sometimes there’s no harm in a bit of imprecision though, particularly when asked to give your opinion on something about which you don’t feel strongly either way.

Nice comes from the Old French nice (simple, silly), from Latin nescius (ignorant), from nescīre (to be ignorant).

On an unrelated matter, what non-English-speaking photographers ask people to say when taking a photo? English-speaking photographers often ask people to say “cheese!”, a word that makes you smile when you say it, thanks to the ee sound. What about in other languages?

16 thoughts on “Accelerating fuzziness

  1. I never heard of one in Arabic, but I would like to imagine the word to be “batteekh” meaning melon! 🙂 it has the EE as well!

  2. In Russian the photographer simply says: smile, give a smile.
    In Hebrew we usually use the English expression: tagid chiz = say cheese.

  3. Hi

    in Hungarian it’s “csíz” [tSi:z] sounds just like the English cheese but it means something totally different “csíz” is the name of a small singing bird 🙂

  4. The great Russian novelist Vasily Pavlovich Aksyonov once wrote a novel translated as Say Cheese!, and the Russian was Скажи изюм!, “Skazhi izyum!” or “Say ‘Raisins!'”

  5. In German there are some contradictious words as well. I remember some words with the prefix “un-” which can either negate the word or “amplify” its meaning. One example is “Untiefe” which is used to describe the depth of water. Mostly it means that the water is shallow, but it can also mean that the water is overly deep. In the most cases you can identify the meaning by context: when talking of ships you mean the shallow water, when talking of the beach and swimming in the sea you’ll rather mean the latter, warning someone to not step here and there.
    There are some other “un-“-words* that behave like that, but mostly “un” can only be interpreted one way.

    *in German there is also the word “Unwort”, refering to a word that shouldn’t be used, like swears… If you read this word the other way (which doesn’t make sense) it would mean a word that isn’t a word at all (something like non-word). Finally you could say it’s the collective term for all words starting with “un”, but I just made up this one. In this case you’d rather write it “Un-Wort” anyway. Well, I’m starting to blather, so I’ll stop now. 😉

  6. I’ve only heard of someone say 伽子 qiezi in Chinese as a signal to smile when taking a photography. Growing up in Taiwan, most people simply say 七 qi (pronouinced “chee”) which means “seven”.

  7. I know in Argentina they usually say “Whisky’ when they take a picture but I am not sure with the other Latin American countries. I guess you get the same effect as our typical “cheese”.

  8. About this photographing thing: As I couldn’t remember a German version ^^ I tried to find something via google, but all I’ve found was “Cheese” as well…

    Another look finally helped my mind: The word is/was “Konfitüre” (jam/marmelade), though I’m not sure why. Actually the “i” in this word is pronounce short (as in “bit”) so there won’t be much of a smile, and “ü”, which is stressed here, forms your lips similar to the u-sound in “loop” and that’s not a smile at all. The final “e” is a schwa-sound – again no smile. Well, and don’t have to say that the “o” doesn’t make you smile as well, do I?
    Quite a strange word for this purpose, isn’t it? So maybe “Cheese” is the better choice, although it’s the lazy and typical German “international” way, because a German word could have done the job just as well. “Liebe” (=love) for example also has this long i-sound. Or I just found another word that would even fit the situation: In German you can say “ein Foto schießen” for “to make a photo” so the imperative “Schieß!” would tell the photographer to make the photo and this word also sounds nearly as “Cheese” without the leading t-sound (~> shees).
    That would be a nice word and I would spread it, if I wouldn’t dislike Cheese-smile photos at all. 😉 They look too unnatural.

  9. Hmm… As far as I know, there is no main word for “cheese!” in French. By standard the photographer says “Souriez!” (Smile!), but the one word that comes to mind is “à trois disez pepsi!” (on three say pepsi!), then the others say “Pepsi!”. Basically, there isn’t a main word to put a smile on people’s face, so the word could be different each time.

  10. The history of “nice” is eerily similar to that German “albern”, just in reverse. “Albern” started out as Old High German “alawari” meaning “all-friendly, kind-hearted”. Of course, if you are generally friendly, you’re likely to be taken advantage of, so the word became to mean “simple, naïve” (“alwære” in Middle High German). Today German “albern” means what “nice” used to mean: silly.

    About photo-op words: I don’t know of an equivalent to “cheese” in German. But it was (or is) customary to say to children “Wo ist das Vögelchen?” (where’s the birdie?) supposedly to make them look at the camera. It’s hard to describe that sillyness rationally.

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