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A nice mess

The people who complain about the supposed decay of English can be counted on to insist on some kind of etymological rigidity (decimate can mean only to reduce by one-tenth) or fixed meaning (as in the stubborn but futile resistance to gay meaning homosexual). The peevers and purists would do well to consider the career of the word nice.

The Oxford English Dictionary shows that back in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, as English was coming into its own, nice meant “stupid” or “foolish.” Or it could mean “loose,” “wanton,” “lascivious,” as in Chaucer’s Romaunt of the Rose: “Nyce she was, but she ne mente Noone harme ne slight in hir entente, But onely lust & jolyte.” Or “extravagant in dress” or “flaunting. Or “trim” and “elegant.”

By the sixteenth century nice could mean “tender” and “delicate”: “He ... was of so nice and tender a composition, that a little wind or rain would disorder him,” Clarendon wrote. That sense extended to include “fastidious,” “dainty,” “difficult to please,” or “refined.”

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries nice moved from fastidious to “precise,” “strict,” “careful.” A “nice distinction” was one made with minute attention to intricacy of detail and degree of difference, one made with some difficulty. Dryden said of Virgil that he “was of too nice a Judgment to introduce a God denying the Power and Providence of the Deity.”

By the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries nice had taken on the more familiar sense of “pleasant,” “agreeable,” or “delightful.” Jane Austen wrote to a correspondent, “You scold me so much in the nice long letter which I have ... received from you.” Or attractive, in the sense of “looking nice.” Or dainty, “a nice little china teacup.”

In our age, crackling with so much non-Victorian cynicism, nice is by no means a positive term, and often serves as a one-word ironic putdown:

“It was a good dinner, but he drank so much that he got violently sick in the car on the way home."


So niceness can incorporate nastiness, and sometimes has, so we come around again to the point that gives the peevers and purists so much trouble. The language goes where it will and is what its users make of it. Say that again: The language goes where it will and is what its users make of it.

Yesterday, when I was snickering at the fatuous proposal for an Academy of English (Who would be on it, the self-appointed guardians?* By what standards would they operate? How could they imagine to enforce their dicta?), one commenter asked “Is there such a thing as bad English? If so, how is it identified? By whom?” Of course there is bad English. This blog has been devoted to the examination of defective writing. Professor Geoffrey K. Pullum excoriates some spectacularly bad grammar in this post on Language Log.

But many judgments about what is good and what is bad are inevitably subjective, and responsible writers and editors will avoid enlarging individual preferences into universals, and will always try to gauge where the language, that moving, shifting entity, happens to be at the moment of writing.

*For “guardians,” read “cranks.”


Posted by John McIntyre at 2:20 PM | | Comments (10)


Even L'Academie Francaise has been unable to stem the tide of loan words. Ex:

Le Weekend. Le Hamburger.

Quel domage.

How can you ask someone to be nice and not wonder if you're sending the wrong message? Worse yet- If I decide to stop playing nice- how will you know how to handle that?

Nice piece, John.

The nickname for baseball fans used to be cranks.

Some character in a film - Maggie Smith or someone not unlike Dame Maggie - once was reaching for an adjective to describe a rather lackluster person. "Well," said her friend, "she's nice." Replied Dame Maggie, "One is so grateful for the adjective." Indeed. In any case, I resent the co-opting of a perfectly good adjective by the homosexual lobby - and turning it into a noun in the process. I fail to see the connection between the adjective and the thing itself, but I assume someone was just looking for a harmless-sounding euphemism - just one of many in these tacky times.

I often read complaints about decimate being used to mean something other than 'reduce by ten percent' but, oddly, I never read any complaints about quarantine being used to refer to something other than a period of forty days.

Thanks. That was helpful.

I enjoyed that article very much....very interesting.

I love this piece. For many years now, whenever someone babbles on about using the "correct" definition (meaning their concept of whatever its 'original' definition was) of any word, I have replied, "oh stop being nice!"

And don't even get started on "quaint."

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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