I thought “naughty” would be an amusing, light etymological romp, but the very first syllable sent me tumbling 4,000 years Alice-down-the -rabbit-hole to land at the root of language, where the traceable starts to vanish into the unknowable. All the way to Proto Indo European (sweetly known as PIE). Our no, from Old English na (no, not, nothing), from PIE’s ne. The earliest polarity of expression: no/yes, dark/light, yin/yang, digital’s 0/1. We say yes now, but we used also to say “aye”, and that’s PIE too, from aiw– “vital force, life, long life, eternity”. I leave you to plumb these deep waters while I return to the easier shallows of “naughty”. Na (no) + Old English wiht (thing, amount), Old High German and Old Norse wight (thing, creature, spirit/demon). Mathematics still uses nought (nothing, zero), and poetry and very elderly persons might still say “You’ve got naught (nothin’)”. You yourself might even have said “You don’t have a whit (wight) of evidence!”. Naughty itself, however, seems to have adventured down the alternative Old High German meaning of spirit/demon. How they got to spirit/demon from no-thing is a trippy speculation: nothing can have an alarming side, perhaps especially in the great nothingness of Old High German forests, haunted with unseen spirits? In any case, naughty enjoyed a dramatic heyday in the 16th century, meaning “wicked, evil, morally wrong”. But it’s been downhill ever since, by now coming so close to naught as to signify cutely mischevious, amusingly disobedient.
Etymological illuminations brought to you by Jane
One response to “Naughty”
Jane, I LOVE these posts. I think you should be on the radio.