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Monday, June 11, 2012

The Word "Nice"

Last night I had a discussion with some friends about what I had thought to be an innocuous word: nice. I actually like it, but I was surprised by the vehemence with which most of the room condemned it as bland, and even insulting in that if you can't say something legitimately good about a person (presumably because they either have a bad personality or none at all), you call them "nice" and leave it at that. It covers a multitude of faults, but in a way that alerts its hearers to the unspoken presence of those faults in the person it describes. Or, at least, I found last night that this is what most people think when they hear it. My first inkling that I might have an unusual appreciation for the word was in my senior year of high school. I remember trying to compliment a Polish class mate of mine, in the midst of a round of less-than-friendly jokes, by saying that all of the Polish people I had met were really nice. Let's just say he wasn't very nice in his reception of the compliment. Well, gee, I thought, I'm sorry. I've always used it as a legitimate compliment, and when, during the discussion last night, I gave an example of how I might use it, everyone granted me leave to continue in my albeit naive and somewhat singular appreciation of the word. Phew.

Anyway, thinking back to a college class from which I remember that it once used to mean someone overly prim and proper, I decided to look it up this morning and find out how the meaning of this word went astray. Can I just say, etymologies are awesome. From the Online Etymology Dictionary (emphasis added):
late 13c., "foolish, stupid, senseless," from O.Fr. nice "silly, foolish," from L. nescius "ignorant," lit. "not-knowing," from ne- "not" (see un-) + stem of scire "to know." "The sense development has been extraordinary, even for an adj." [Weekley] -- from "timid" (pre-1300); to "fussy, fastidious" (late 14c.); to "dainty, delicate" (c.1400); to "precise, careful" (1500s, preserved in such terms as a nice distinction and nice and early); to "agreeable, delightful" (1769); to "kind, thoughtful" (1830). In 16c.-17c. it is often difficult to determine exactly what is meant when a writer uses this word. By 1926, it was pronounced "too great a favorite with the ladies, who have charmed out of it all its individuality and converted it into a mere diffuser of vague and mild agreeableness." [Fowler]

Of course, always unfailing, Jane Austen has a few words to say on the subject as well:

"I am sure," cried Catherine, "I did not mean to say anything wrong; but it is a nice book, and why should I not call it so?" "Very true," said Henry, "and this is a very nice day, and we are taking a very nice walk; and you are two very nice young ladies. Oh! It is a very nice word indeed! It does for everything." (Northanger Abbey)

 And, while we're on the subject, it's time for one of my personal favorites: The English Are So Nice, by D. H. Lawrence:

The English are so nice
so awfully nice
they are the nicest people in the world.

And what's more, they're very nice about being nice
about your being nice as well!
If you're not nice they soon make you feel it.

Americans and French and Germans and so on
they're all very well
but they're not really nice, you know.
They're not nice in our sense of the word, are they now?

That's why one doesn't have to take them seriously.
We must be nice to them, of course,
of course, naturally.
But it doesn't really matter what you say to them,
they don't really understand
you can just say anything to them:
be nice, you know, just nice
but you must never take them seriously, they wouldn't understand,
just be nice, you know! Oh, fairly nice,
not too nice of course, they take advantage
but nice enough, just nice enough
to let them feel they're not quite as nice as they might be.

Amazing, right? "Just nice enough / to let them feel they're not quite as nice as they might be." Ouch. Anyway, I suppose this poem does of course deftly and elegantly derail any reasoning behind my fond attachment to "nice", but, of course, based on the remarkably evolutionary etymology of the word, who knows? Maybe my use of it will rise to the top in connotation and eventually become the primary meaning of it over the next hundred years. Ah, language...

PS. I am well aware of the geekiness of this post.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. was the previous comment not nice?

  3. Personally, as an Anglophobe, I think it was nice of the English to let the colonies go, after a war of only a few years duration.

  4. How funny; I was just thinking today about the merits - or lack thereof - of the word 'nice.'
    I was recalling hearing a well-respected professor advise his daughter to eliminate the word 'nice' entirely from her vocabulary. The implication was that she would find that other words would serve her better, and more precisely, and that 'nice' would never be missed.
    I agree that it does tend to be vapid, but it's for this reason that I don't agree that it should be eliminated entirely. It's a good word for when one wants to describe something... vapid!

  5. This comment has been removed by the author.

  6. This was altogether wonderful and enjoyable. Thanks, Ellen!

  7. Interestingly, the word "nice" is now highly in vogue among martial arts enthusiasts. Wherever two or three such are gathered together, whether in a gym or a dojo or simply watching an event on TV, if a well-executed move occurs, then at least one of those present will go, "NICE!" A slightly different connotation than the one envisaged above, perhaps, but at least the word lives on.