January 21, 2014
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Naughty is a word that I have used for years in a silly way, almost always spoken to one of my children when admonishing them for something mildly bad they have said or done. This usage and meaning are widely understood, but an interesting question arose as I thought about this word recently: why exactly does naughty mean “bad”?
No answer came to me immediately and I didn’t bother to pursue one, but I let the question sit in my subconscious for a few weeks. Then, one day, I had a flash of insight that allowed me to connect naughty to naught, as in the phrase come to naught, or there’s naught else I can do. Making this connection made me realize that the root of naughty is an archaic word for “nothing”.
This sent me running for dictionaries and websites in order to understand where naught comes from. What I found was that naught derives from the Old English word nawiht, where na means “no” and wiht means “thing”.
From this perspective then, to be naughty is to act in a way that is not constructive, that is likely to lead to nothing. This sense of non-constructiveness seems to be the root of the moralistic tone the word has taken on, perhaps as an outgrowth of the Protestant Work Ethic, which was particularly strong in England. It is interesting to note that most other European languages (at least the ones with which I am familiar) do not maintain this connection, by which I mean that the common way of rendering naughty in these languages has no connection to the concept of “nothing”.
This moral angle would also explain how the word has come to be used as a humorous descriptor of (often “illegitimate”) sexual behavior.
In the end, I think I find naughty to be such an interesting word because it hides in plain sight, while remaining flexible enough to change with the times and be used in various ways.