“The Biggs would call her a nice woman” – Jane Austen (Letters, 1799)
Nice is one of those adjectives which, whilst not strictly an insult, I’d be fairly narked to have ascribed to me. It sits somewhere between “meaning well” and having one’s “heart in the right place”; to be “nice” strikes me as as a euphemism for being too inconsequential to be considered anything else. And I’m not alone.
This is, perhaps, due to the word’s ubiquity. As you read this, an English teacher somewhere is attempting – fruitlessly – to expunge nice from their students’ list of go-to adjectives. Yet even the most literate will continue to go through life splashing the word around like linguistic ketchup: “It’s nice to see you”; “The weather’s so nice today”; “Your great-uncle Aloysius is such a nice man” – its very inoffensiveness allows it to sneak into the majority of sentences risk-free.
Today, to be nice is to be pleasant at best and, at worst, indescribably bland. One of my favourite smackdowns of recent years is hearing a lady of a certain age refer to a mutual acquaintance as having “all the personality of a Nice biscuit” – the anaemic coconutty oblongs in question are actually believed to be named after the French town of the same name, but the comparison still holds.
It hasn’t always been thus, however. Today’s post charts the word’s rollercoaster journey through the English language to reach the universal usage it enjoys today. Like that of great-uncle Aloysius, its past is something of a shady one.
The earliest usage of “nice”
Nice has humble origins, first used adjectivally (of a person) to mean foolish, simple, or ignorant. The OED suggests an etymology from the Latin nescius: the negative prefix ne- plus an adjectival form of the verb scire, to know – one might compare scient or even science. This eventually rolls into Anglo-Norman and Old French as nice (we’re talking 12th century here) and also appears as a noun, meaning a foolish person.
If it be ony fool or nyce, In whom that Shame hath no justice.
Chaucer (Romaunt Rose, 1285)
“Foolish” very quickly begins to diverge into “showy” or even “lascivious” – particularly when describing women. This meaning crops up most notably in Chaucer, and persists into the early modern period – Moth takes a swipe at “nice wenches” in Love’s Labour’s Lost (c.1590).
The jump from foolishness to financial or sexual irresponsibility isn’t too surprising, but what really interests me is the many and nuanced alternatives which proliferate in this period and beyond. A full dictionary entry for the adjectival nice reads as a graveyard of archaic put-downs, always with an edge of ambiguity – particularly as with passing decades today’s definition of “pleasant” comes increasingly into play.
The low-key disses in question run from implied effeminacy to oafishness or negligence. A common theme is that of fastidiousness, particularly regarding dress or lifestyle. It’s this last definition which eventually begins to take hold, transforming into a praiseworthy level of delicacy.
No more Mr Nice Guy
By the early 19th century, these connotations of consideration and punctiliousness are well established. So, too, is an optional undercurrent of sarcasm – an etymological nod to its less-than-complimentary origins.
Jane Austen makes use of this with aplomb, and fittingly so: in a world where dancing a Quadrille with the wrong Baronet’s son could render you a social pariah, it follows that – coupled with a bit of side-eye from behind your fan – judicious use of nice could very much qualify as a Regency “up yours”.
“… 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.”
Jane Austen (Northanger Abbey, 1803)
To a certain extent, this ambiguous edge continues today – we hear it in the sneering “nice try” from a rival, or the self-professed “nice guys” denied their god-given right to female sexual attention.
A “nice blue sky” might not elicit much comment any more, but it seems I am justified in my discomfort when “niceness” is attributed to a person. In this humble monosyllable, Austen’s legacy of subtext and inference lives on: we can’t exactly complain about being told we’re “nice”, but from somewhere, somehow, our etymological spidey senses are tingling.