Some people think the word neat is fading from the stage, an aging hipster a bit too dull to hold its own against “cool”…though perhaps still occasionally employable in some tongue-in-cheek, “post-ironic” sort of way. Others of us still use it plenty. “Oh, that’s neat.” Or just “Neat!”. Our version of post-ironic is “neato“. Somebody is getting pushed closer to the sidelines, however, and it seems to be formal dictionary-proper neat, neat as in tidy, precise, orderly. Can’t remember the last time I used neat for its original intended purpose. People seem to prefer its synonyms, like tidy, though we still find it entertaining to call a very tidy person a “neatnik”. Could it be that neatness in general is in a sort of bystander phase, giving cultural way to relaxed “shabby chic” (never mind “grunge”), so less call to use the word?
Well, if you’re going to think about original meaning, then even tidy-neat is a newbie that dates only from about 1570. Really original neat goes back nearly beyond imagining – 6,000 years to Bronze age Proto Indo European (PIE) – and her meaning then was more elemental: to shine. The PIE root is ni/nei, which a few thousand years later became Latin’s nitere (to shine). Shiny things have always been enticing, and it was Latin that first borrowed shine to describe something well put-together, trim, attractive. Welsh, Old Irish, Old French kept closer to the original with their meanings of gleam, splendor, but added strength, holy, pure to the innuendo. (Didn’t your grandmother ever prompt you “Cleanliness is next to Godliness”? Shiny clean holiness is a very old idea.) Following the pure angle, by 1540, English’s neat was “clean, free from dirt”, and from there it was easy to fold in ancient Latin’s “well put-together, trim” to arrive at 1570’s tidy, precise, orderly. Barkeeps reverted to neat-as-pure in the 1800’s: “neat” liquor is unadulterated, unmixed, then and now. We Americans were the first to re-state the obvious: anything shiny, pure, well put-together is certainly “very good“, and pretty quickly anything very good was neat, whether strictly speaking pure or not. Once a word becomes this general, almost anything goes… and before you know it you could even fall into the clutches of “post-ironic”.
Neat seems to me to be rather unperturbed by the fluctuations. The ni/nei sound of her primeval lineage remains undimmed; she has the unassuming poise of ancient blood, a natural princess unaffected by whether her current vehicle is a Rolls or a donkey. After all, either (or both) can be neat.
Etymological illuminations brought to you by Jane