The Not-so-Nice Origins and Meanings of the Word “Nice”

Blog11-24Words can change meaning over time—sometimes dramatically. For example, “manufactured” originally meant “handmade” (manu (hand) + facere (make)). The word “decimate” used to mean “to reduce by a tenth” (decem = ten); now people usually use it mean “to wipe out completely.” The list of examples could go on and on. Yes, words do change meaning over time.

One word that has changed meaning dramatically over time is “nice.” Today it is an overused word that usually means pleasant, kind, or easygoing. In our culture there is often a standing admonition that we should be nice, as in “Stop fighting and be nice now!”

But the adjective “nice” once meant anything but nice in the modern sense. Rather, it was a derogatory word used to describe a person as something of a fool.

The word “nice” comes from the Latin nescius, meaning “ignorant, unaware” (ne (not) + scire (know)). The Old French word “nice” (12th century) also came from this Latin root and meant “careless, clumsy, weak, simple, foolish, or stupid.”

In the 13th century, “nice” meant “foolish, stupid, or senseless.” In the 14th century, the word started to morph into meaning “fussy, fastidious.” In the 15th century it meant “dainty, delicate.” In the 1500s it was used to mean “precise, careful.” By the 18th century it shifted to meaning “agreeable, delightful.” And by the 19th century it had acquired its current connotation of “kind and thoughtful.”

The word “nice” has certainly had a tortured history!

Given its older meaning of “ignorant, stupid, or foolish,” it is not surprising that the word “nice” is used only twice in the Douay-Rheims Bible, and in both cases pejoratively.

Today the word can have a meaning that is properly praiseworthy and is basically a synonym for “good.” For example, one might comment, “That was a nice distinction you made.” Or, observing a sporting event, one might say, “That was a nice move!”

However, I am also convinced that the word “nice” is beginning to return to its less noble meanings. This takes place when it is used in a reductionist manner that seeks to simplify the entire moral life to being “nice.” Here, nice is used in the sense of being pleasant and agreeable. To the modern world, in which “pseudo-tolerance” is one of the only “virtues” left, being nice is about the only commandment left. It seems that much will be forgiven a person just so long as he is “nice.” And little will be accepted from a person who is not thought of as “nice.”

I suppose niceness has its place, but being nice is too akin to being harmless, to being someone who introduces no tension and is most often agreeable. As such, a nice person is not so far away from being a pushover, one who is easily manipulated, silenced, and pressured into tacit approval. And thus “nice” begins to move backward into its older meanings: dainty, agreeable, weak, simple, and even further back into weak, simple, unaware, and ignorant.

The pressure to “be nice” easily translates into pressure to put a dumb grin on your face and pretend that things are great even when they’re not. And to the degree that we succumb to this pressure, we allow those who seek to shame us if we aren’t nice get to watch with glee as we walk around with s dumb grin. And they get to think of us, “What an ignorant fool. What a useful idiot.” And thus “nice” takes up its original meaning.

We follow a Lord who was anything but a harmless hippie, or a kind pushover. He introduced tension, was a sign of contradiction, and was opposed by many because he didn’t always say and do pleasant things. Not everything he said was “nice.” He often used strong words: hypocrites, brood of vipers, whitewashed tombs, murderers of the prophets, and evildoers. He warned of judgment and Hell. He spoke in parables about burning cities, doom, destruction, wailing and grinding of teeth, and of seeing enemies slain. These are not kind words, but they are loving words, because they seek to shock us unto conversion. They speak to us of our true state if we remain rebels. Jesus certainly didn’t end up nailed to cross by being nice in any sense of the word.

In the end, “nice” is a weird word. Its meaning has shifted so many times as to be practically without a stable meaning. Today it has further degraded and increasingly returned to its original meaning. Those who insist on the importance of being “nice” usually mean it for you, but not for themselves. They want to have you walk around with a silly grin on your face, being foolishly pleasant, while they laugh behind your back.

To be sure, being “nice” in its best modern sense has its place. We surely should not go around acting like a grouch all day. But just as being nice has its place, so does being insistent, bold, and uncompromising.

15 Replies to “The Not-so-Nice Origins and Meanings of the Word “Nice””

  1. Because of its blandness and overuse, the word ‘nice’ is banned from mention in my college classes. Far too often, the word is used in music criticism class, for example, as an evasion of the responsibility to provide specifics. That is, the use of the word ‘nice’ enables the critic to avoid a more accurate analysis founded upon specific criteria employed with the aim of providing constructive (accurate and thorough) criticism (expressed in a charitable manner) to a performer.

    Thank you, Monsignor, for the etymology lesson!

  2. This reminds me of a line from “Into the Woods,” addressed by the witch to the rest of the characters: “You’re so NICE. You’re not good, you’re not bad … you’re just NICE.”

  3. In working with the public I also notice the casual use of hyperbole that sounds equally ridiculous. When asking someone how he/she is, I get responses such as “I’m fantastic, awesome, wonderful, terrific, great, etc.” In addition to their using adjectives where adverbs are required, my not being nice makes me want to ask them, “yeah, says who?”

  4. Msgr: Thanks for the article. The idea of nice being the greatest goal in our contemporary society has bugged me for some time. I was inspired by your article, and wrote my own post on linkedin. I hope you don’t mind me linking your article. Thanks!
    Tom

  5. The American composer Charles Ives, for reasons I am unaware, often used “nice” in a negative way. It had a particularly cutting edge as a critical commentary, usually implying that something was only nice, when it should have been much more. But reading through some of the quotes, it could also mean “foolish”.

  6. Being “nice” led to the decline of my marriage. By the time I realized I was just being a pushover it was too late and totally unacceptable for me to change. Then I was just being intolerant.
    Now I learned to let my “yes” mean yes and my “no” mean no. I get odd looks when there is no wriggle room.

  7. I know I am old fashioned but see due to being fussy and fastidious I am a relic of the 14th century. As a teenager I was a “surfer,” now due to this new revelation, I am a “serf.”

  8. Interesting. In Spanish, we did retain the original meaning of “nescire”. The word “necio” means foolish or stupid.

  9. Nice seems to be just the sort of folks that the captains of the corporation governed industrialized world have been cultivating for the past 150 years. Maybe we should replace it with the pejorative use of the world ‘tool’ – as in you, sir, are a tool. Unfortunately, most are too oblivious to the manipulative forces dictating the norms of their life.

  10. Fulton Sheen has a good take on “nice” in his great book “Peace of Soul” which is very much in line with what Monsignor Pope states. Great article.

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