I was chatting the other day with a writing friend and mentioned the book (“Words the Sea Gave Us”). “What is it about?” “The nautical words and phrases we use in everyday English” “Wow, that’s niche!”
Never one to let a good word slip by, and pretty happy with my word fooling niche, I’d found my word for this week. However, before we get onto the meaning and history of niche, I’d better settle the pronunciation with thanks to Merriam Webster. Personally I say neesh (rhymes with sheesh) but others use nich (sounds like hitch). They believe neesh is the more common British English pronunciation (certainly it is the only one I have ever heard used in Ireland or Britain) and probably came from French influences. Thankfully both are equally correct but nich was the original pronunciation with neesh only arriving in the early 1900s and taking nearly a century to gain acceptance. So now you know. What version to do you use?
Niche has a variety of meanings (usually indicating a word has been around a while). 1) a recess in a wall, perhaps for a statue, 2) an activity/place which is perfectly suited to somebody (finding your niche), 3) same as above but in an ecological sense, and 4) a specialised market.
With those definitions I will happily claim my book on options 2 and 4!
The most commonly provided etymology for the word niche unfolds as follows – niche (early 1600s) comes from the same word in French for a recess and ultimately from the French verb nicher (to make a nest) which came to French from Latin nidus (nest). I rather like the idea of a niche being a nest – close, snug, and perfectly formed for one purpose – keeping a hatchling safe and secure, in their comfort zone, so to speak.
As is often the case with older words, the origins of niche are little more debated than that neat nest conclusion, however. The excellent Etymology Online provides more detail. They agree that English acquired the word to describe a recess in a wall in the early 1600s from French but they think it was used in French to describe a recess for a dog, or a dog kennel. After that the academic etymologists lay their hands upon the trail and it becomes murky.
Klein and Barnhart think it arrived in French from the Italian word nicchia (niche or nook), from nicchio (seashell) and probably from Latin mitulus (mussel). Another expert, Watkins, provides the Old French nichier (to build a nest) from Latin nidus but Etymology Online reckons that one has difficulties too.
Using niche to describe a perfect nook in life didn’t arise until 1725 and the ecological niche appeared in the 1920s (much earlier than I would have expected).
So, is a niche a nest or a seashell? I’m not sure which I prefer but I like the symmetry of these nature inspired origins being used again later in ecology studies. if you’ve ever observed how snugly an egg sits in a once-off beak-crafted nest or how elegantly a sea creature lives in its shell I think you’ll agree that both are wonderful examples of niches at work. I think I’ll accept both.
Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,
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p.p.s. Quick Book Update – my wonderful cover designer has, we hope, resolved the printer’s late-breaking issue with the paperback edition of “Words The Sea Gave Us” – huzzah, raise a tankard of grog! However I want to have a perfect paperback in my own hands before I run the official book launch. You will be the first ones to get that date (probably mid to late August), but at least the barometer is now set fair.