Jonathan Swift, in his satirical poem ‘An Epistle to a Lady’, says modestly: ‘If I can but fill my Nitch,/ I attempt no higher Pitch.’ This notion of a social alcove was identical 300 years later when a character in Bill the Conqueror by P.G. Wodehouse finds she has grown used to ‘his undynamic acceptance of his niche in the world’.
But how would Wodehouse have pronounced the word? Certainly like Swift, to rhyme with itch. Yet today, when speaking of a niche market, we say it to rhyme with some French word like fiche.
This is a case brought up by the brilliant John Simpson, not our man in the burka, but the former chief editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, in his new book The Word Detective. He admits to pronouncing niche as neesh now: ‘But I wouldn’t have 50 years ago’.
Swift was helpful in using the word as a rhyme in 1733, even if such evidence must be treated with caution. Other rhymes in the poem are ventures and representers; good in ’um with lodanum (‘laudanum’); dull t’ye with difficulty. Swift pictures himself watching the madness of society as if from a passing boat. ‘Like the Watermen of Thames,/ I row by, and call them Names’. Does that mean he pronounced Thames to rhyme with names? That would agree with a couplet by Peter Pindar (John Wolcot) mocking Sir Joseph Banks, ‘Whose modest wisdom, therefore, never aims/ To find the longitude, or burn the Thames.’
Here, by the way, we run into one of those spurious etymologies that are ineradicable because of their ingenious appeal to the imagination. Someone wrote in to the periodical Notes & Queries in 1865 suggesting that in ‘set the Thames on fire’, the word was originally temse, a sieve, which he supposed ‘that an active fellow might set on fire by force of friction’. The OED notes firmly: ‘This conjecture has no basis of fact.’ That won’t stop them.
As for niche, I have probably treated it as two words: one, the literal recess in a wall, pronounced nitch; the other a metaphorical gap in an ecological system or (from the 1960s) market, pronounced neesh. It’s not logical, but that’s how language develops.