An 11-Letter Puzzler

The esoteric, decidedly odd-looking word in question:

nicebecetur (n.) a dainty, fine, or fashionable girl or woman

With the exception of its definition, etymologists know little about this sixteenth-century noun. The Oxford English Dictionary states that its origin is unknown, then speculates the word was “perhaps a fanciful formation from nice.” And, like all words of the time, it served up an alphabet soup’s worth of spellings: nycebecetur, nycebyceter, nycibicetour, and more.

A Term of Endearment?  

The first recorded use of nicebecetur was 1520, and a 1584 OED quotation from Clement Robinson’s A Handful of Pleasant Delights is rather puzzling in its own right: “Farewel good nicibicetur, God send you a sweeter.” (No, “sweeter” wasn’t an early spelling of sweater.) In Ralph Roister Doister, one of the earliest English comedies, playwright Nicholas Udall (1504–1556) seems to use nicebecetur as a term of endearment… and this also appears to be the case with a truncated version from the 1595 play Locrine, sometimes attributed to Shakespeare: “No, by my troth, mistress nicebice, how fine you can nickname me.”

Another mystery: the pronunciation. Nice-BEE-ce-tur? Nice-be-SEE-tur? However it was voiced, the word is a clunker in both appearance and sound (to this Wordie, at least) – odder than odd, given its highly complimentary meaning.

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