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shameless pleading

Naughty or nice.

It’s August and still going strong.

Dear Word Detective: Did the phrase “naughty or nice” originate with the lyrics of “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town”? If not there, where? — Ed.

Good question, and a seasonal one as well. I just hope I can get that tune out of my head before next spring. But at least it’s a tune. If I may geeze for a moment, does the fact that current pop music so notably lacks anything resembling a melody mean that Generation i-Pod has naught but tuneless moaning getting stuck in their heads? Poor things. No wonder they look so depressed.

I think it’s pretty doubtful that the pairing of “naughty” with “nice” came first in Santa Claus Is Coming to Town, given that they are both very old words and the song was written in 1934. There’s also the appealing alliteration of the words, especially enticing since “naughty” and “nice” are generally considered opposites. But the song definitely codified the phrase in the modern popular lexicon, to the point where it’s hard to hear the phrase without starting to hum the song.

Not bad for a song that was essentially written by accident. According to an article in Kiwanis Magazine, famed songwriter J. Fred Coots was riding the subway in June 1934 when he ran into lyricist Haven Gillespie, who was on his way to see another composer about scoring some lyrics he’d written for “a kid song.” The other composer turned out to be out of town, so Coots and Gillespie collaborated on the song, Eddie Cantor sang it a few months later on his radio show, and the “kid song,” Santa Claus Is Coming to Town, became, and remains by any standard, a colossal hit.

I mentioned that both “naughty” and “nice” are very old words, but they also have interesting histories. “Nice,” when it appeared in English in the 13th century, meant, not “pleasant” or “polite,” but “stupid,” derived from the Latin “nescius,” meaning “ignorant.” Over time, it progressed in stages to meaning “timid,” “fussy,” “delicate,” “precise” (still used in phrases such as “nice and tidy”), “agreeable,” and finally “kind.”

“Naughty” comes from the Old English “nawiht,” meaning “nothing” (literally “not a whit”). The form “naught” is still used, as I did in the first paragraph of this answer, to mean “nothing at all.” The form “naughty” originally meant, in the early 15th century, “having nothing,” i.e., poor. For the ensuing two centuries, “naughty” was used, when applied to persons, to mean “wicked or immoral.” By the early 17th century, however, the word had softened considerably and was applied mainly to disobedient children.

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