Word of the Week: Nice

Nice – It’s Boring, Right?

Today the Oxford Online English Dictionary cites two main meanings of the adjective ‘nice’:

1) Giving pleasure or satisfaction; pleasant or attractive or (of a person) good natured; kind

2) Slight or subtle (of a difference); requiring careful consideration

But the main thing which most writers associate with this four-letter demon is the typical teacher’s order never to use it in a piece of work. Ever. It is cast alongside ‘said’, ‘good’, ‘bad’ and a plethora of other mundane lexemes into the abyss which is banality; you use it at your peril.

A pretty odd choice then, it would seem, for my very first Word of the Week feature which really ought to elicit excitement about the English Language, not dwell on the less attractive features of it which we must simply accept.

Allow me to justify myself with an intriguing plot twist in the story of this ‘boring’ little adjective’s etymology: nice hasn’t always been a nice word. Oxford Dictionary gives a third (archaic) definition of the adjective: ‘fastidious, scrupulous’ (explaining the origin of its secondary meaning today), which was born from the word’s pre-1300 sense of timid or reserved, which itself developed from the Middle English/Old French meaning stupid, careless or foolish. The original Latin derivation was ‘nescuis’ (ignorant), later ‘nescire’ (literally ‘not know’).

By the time Henry Tilney exclaimed that ‘It is a very nice word indeed! It does for everything,’ in Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey (completed around 1803 but not published until 1817), the term had changed its meaning no fewer than 6 times, averaging an impressive rate of once a century.

So, it happens that ‘nice’ in fact used to be a pretty nasty word, and one has to wonder (with its frequently sarcastic use nowadays and the criticism it receives for being awfully ordinary) whether it may soon be starting its intriguing etymological journey from the very beginning once again.


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