The winged victory of “Nice”

“Words cannot express,” our leaders begin their remarks on the horrific attack in Nice, France. The carnage shocks us and saddens us into the disbelief of speechlessness. But just as words fail us, we also turn to them to make sense, some sort of sense, of tragedy. So it is with the word Nice, whose origin may raise us up, if in the smallest of ways.

Screen Shot 2016-07-15 at 11.00.52 AM.png
Nike endures, Nice endures: The Winged Victory of Samothrace. Image © 2014 Musée du Louvre, Philippe Fuzeau.  


Ancient Greek mariners from Phocaea, on the Aegean Turkey, founded colonies along France’s Mediterranean coast called Massalía, now Marseilles. As far as we know, some Massaliotes battled a neighboring tribe of an Italo-Celtic people, the Ligures, in 350 BC. The Greeks won, and founded a new city there. To commemorate their victory, they named their new settlement Nikaia, honoring their goddess of victory. Her name was Nike.

In addition to personifying the goddess, the word nike, or νίκη in ancient Greek, meant “victory,” including victory in battle, Olympic games, and in more general undertakings. The further roots are unknown; some suggest a pre-Greek origin, others look to an earlier Greek word meaning “strife” or “to quarrel.” Latin rendered Nikaia as Nicaea, which became Nice in French.

Nike lives on, of course, in the athletic brand, but also in Nicholas, which literally means “victory-people.” It joins nike with laos, “people.” Laos often referred to “common people,” and it gives English lay, as in a layperson.

The ancient Greeks wrote of “trim-ankled” Nike, who drove Zeus’ own chariot with her renowned speed and spread her iconic wings over victors in the battlefield. Her wings are still outspread in her famed sculpture in the Louvre, where she greet visitors as The Winged Victory of Samothrace. Her wings are outspread, too, over all the people of her namesake, Nice.

m ∫ r ∫


6 thoughts on “The winged victory of “Nice”

  1. As well as Nicholas (Νικόλαος) ‎from Ancient Greek: νίκη ‎(níkē “victory”) + λαός ‎(laós “people”) there are other names with the combined element -νίκη ‎(níkē)
    Bernice, Berenice (Βερενίκη ‎Bereníkē), “bringer of victory”) from φέρω ‎(phérō, “to bear, to carry, to bring”) + νίκη ‎(níkē, “victory”). Latin form is Veronica.
    Eunice (Ευνίκη) from Ancient Greek εὖ ‎(eû, “good”) + νίκη ‎(níkē, “victory”) and the name of the Greek city Thessalonica (Θεσσαλονίκη Thessaloniki) from Θεσσαλός ‎(Thessalós) “Thessalian” and νίκη ‎(níkē) “victory” derived from the name of the princess Thessalonike (Θεσσαλονίκη Thessaloníkē) of Macedon.


    1. Ooh, more νίκη connections – and lovely Greek names – hiding right under our noses. Especially disguised in ‘Thessalonica’, thanks to Latin basis.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s