Of course I’m a “team player.” Just not on your team.

Dear Word Detective: At the end of every year, we are forced to sit through countless interminable reviews with the executives of my company. These sessions vary from being simply boring, to very boring, to offensively and rage-inducingly boring. While listening to one particular blockhead, one of my peers muttered “Ninny!” under his breath. While I was pretending to choke on my coffee in order to disguise my laughter, it got me thinking — where does “ninny” come from? It sounds Elizabethan to me — is it that old? — Chris, Kansas City.

Gosh, I miss working in an office. I miss the conviviality and the camaraderie of my co-workers, of course, but also the skulduggery, pettifoggery, mendacity, and, dare I say it, blind stupidity of management. Year-end reviews were a special treat, and always put me in mind of the famous line from the Robert Burns poem “To a Louse” (“O wad some Power the giftie gie us, To see oursels as ithers see us!”). Or maybe not. I remember sitting through a performance review many years ago by a manager who clearly thought I was someone else. He admitted it the next day, and we agreed to forget the whole thing.

“Ninny,” meaning “a simpleton or fool,” is indeed that old, and first appeared in print (as far as we know) in 1593, during the reign (1558-1603) of Queen Elizabeth I of England. A “ninny,” in modern usage, is not merely uninformed, stupid or wrong, but also laughably silly. “Ninny” almost certainly originated as a modification of “an innocent,” through a process called “metanalysis” in which the “n” of the “an” was grafted onto the noun, producing “a ninnocent,” or “a ninny.” (The same process changed “an ewt” into “a newt” and, in reverse, transformed “a napron.” related to “napkin,” into “an apron.”)

Today calling someone “an innocent” would probably not be regarded as a grave insult. But back in the 14th century the word, which had since about 1200 meant someone pure and “unacquainted with evil,” such as a child, began to be used to mean, as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it delicately, “One wanting in ordinary knowledge or intelligence; a simpleton, a silly fellow; a half-wit, an idiot.” (Or, as Mel Brooks memorably put it in Blazing Saddles, “You’ve got to remember that these are just simple farmers. These are people of the land. … You know … morons.”) So when “an innocent” became “a ninny,” it definitely wasn’t a compliment to the target of the term.

A similar change in sense can be found in the history of “nice,” today the epitome of the tepid compliment. The root of “nice” is the Latin “nescius,” meaning literally “not knowing,” and “nice” has been hopping all over the semantic map since it first appeared in English in the 13th century. Originally used to mean “foolish or stupid” (reflecting the Old French “nice” from which it was borrowed), “nice” went on to mean “wanton or lascivious” (as in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales), but then switched course to mean “timid,” then “fussy” and “dainty,” then “precise,” then “agreeable,” and finally a vague sort of “kind.” It’s no wonder that “nice” seems so devoid of meaning today. The poor word has whiplash.

Interestingly, about a year prior to the first recorded use of “ninny” in print there occurs an instance of the term “ninnyhammer” (1592), also meaning “fool” or “blockhead.” This “ninnyhammer” is pretty clearly a combination of “ninny” and the “hammer” from “hammerheaded,” a somewhat earlier (1552) term for a doofus based on the idea of a hammer as an inert blunt instrument. The fact that “ninnyhammer” appears before “ninny” itself in the written record is a good illustration of how hard it is to trace words that far back. But “ninnyhammer” is an awesome word, and I’d like to suggest that we each make it our mission in the coming year to work it into at least one inter-office memo.

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