‘Nice’ in Northanger Abbey

Oh! it is a very nice word indeed! – It does for everything. (Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey)

Nice is often held up as an example of semantic drift: its meaning has changed often, and radically, since it entered English in the 13thC from Old French nice “simple, silly, foolish”, from Latin nescius “ignorant”.

Etymonline sketches the sequence, while the Shorter OED’s entry is shown in plain form here with quotations for each sense. The 14th and final adjectival sense in the OED, dating from the early 18thC, is the general-purpose expression of approval we’re most familiar with:

Agreeable, pleasant, satisfactory, delightful, generally commendable; (of food) tasty, appetizing; (of a person) kind, considerate, friendly; iron. (very) bad, unsatisfactory. colloq.

This usage has long been criticised for being vague, overused, and colloquial. Partridge, in Usage and Abusage, called it “an indication of laziness”, while Fowler blamed the word’s own good fortune, and women, for ruining it: “the ladies”, he wrote, had “charmed out of it all its individuality & converted it into a mere diffuser of vague & mild agreeableness.” Woe is mankind!

Nowadays, nice is used mostly in speech and fiction, as the following at-a-glance genre graph in COCA (1990–2011) shows. You can click through for examples in each category.

Comparatively few instances of the word are found in academic texts, and many of these are acronymic or dialogue uses.

Fowler said people limiting nice to its “more proper” (i.e., older) senses were doing the language a favour. He would presumably have sided with Henry Tilney in Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey (1817), who teased Catherine Morland over her modern-leaning use of the word:

   ‘But now really, do not you think Udolpho the nicest book in the world?’
   ‘The nicest; – by which I suppose you mean the neatest. That must depend upon the binding.’
   ‘Henry,’ said Miss Tilney, ‘you are very impertinent. Miss Morland, he is treating you exactly as he does his sister. He is for ever finding fault with me, for some incorrectness of language, and now he is taking the same liberty with you. The word “nicest,” as you used it, did not suit him; and you had better change it as soon as you can, or we shall be overpowered with Johnson and Blair all the rest of the way.’
   ‘I am sure,’ cried Catherine, ‘I did not mean to say anything wrong; but it is a nice book, and why should not I 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. Originally perhaps it was applied only to express neatness, propriety, delicacy, or refinement; – people were nice in their dress, in their sentiments, or their choice. But now every commendation on every subject is comprised in that one word.’
   ‘While, in fact,’ cried his sister, ‘it ought only to be applied to you, without any commendation at all. You are more nice than wise. Come, Miss Morland, let us leave him to meditate over our faults in the utmost propriety of diction, while we praise Udolpho in whatever terms we like best.’

The passage plays astutely on the word’s polysemy, while the reference to Johnson is, well, a nice coincidence. Today I saw a page of Isaac Watts’s Logick which Johnson had marked up to quote in his Dictionary: “Nor have we either Senſes or Inſtruments ſufficiently nice and accurate to find them out.” The word nice, exemplifying one of the usages of which Fowler later approved, was duly underlined.

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17 Responses to ‘Nice’ in Northanger Abbey

  1. Marc Leavitt says:

    Stan:
    I’ve always liked to use the word in the older sense of “That’s a nice distinction” to mean “fine,” or “precise.” That meaning is still in use, but not as much as the general sense of “warm and cozy,” or the colloquial sense of agreement, as in “that’s nice.” Of course, I’m making an “un-nice” distinction.

  2. kitchenmudge says:

    Wow. I was unaware that “nice” was still used with any particular meaning at all, except vague approval. Much like the words I listed here:

    http://kitchenmudge.wordpress.com/2011/08/17/hes-doing-that-again/

  3. John Cowan says:

    The OED3 says: “The semantic development of this word from ‘foolish, silly’ to ‘pleasing’ is unparalleled in Latin or in the Romance languages. The precise sense development in English is unclear. N.E.D. (1906) s.v. notes that ‘in many examples from the 16th and 17th cent. it is difficult to say in what particular sense the writer intended it to be taken’” Nevertheless, they give it a good college try, with this result (quotations omitted; † means ‘obsolete sense’):

    A. adj.

    †1.

    a. Of a person: foolish, silly, simple; ignorant. c1300—1617

    b. Of an action, utterance, etc.: displaying foolishness or silliness; absurd, senseless. a1393—a1657

    †2.

    a. Of conduct, behaviour, etc.: characterized by or encouraging wantonness or lasciviousness. a1387—1665

    b. Of a person: wanton, dissolute, lascivious. a1393—1605

    c. Of dress: extravagant, showy, ostentatious. Also in extended use. 1395—a1771

    d. Of a person: finely dressed, elegant. Cf. Phrases 3a. c1400—1540

    3.

    a. Precise or particular in matters of reputation or conduct; scrupulous, punctilious. Now rare.
    c1387-95—1948

    b. Fastidious, fussy, difficult to please, esp. with regard to food or cleanliness; of refined or dainty tastes. c1400—1952

    †c. Particular, strict, or careful with regard to a specific point or thing. 1584—1861

    d. Refined, cultured; associated with polite society. 1588—1981

    †e. Fastidious in matters of literary taste or style. 1594—1841

    f. Respectable, virtuous, decent. Now sometimes hard to distinguish from sense A. 14c (of a person). 1799—1979

    g. Of a topic of conversation, mode of conduct, etc.: in good taste, appropriate, proper. Usu. in negative contexts. 1863—1993

    †4.

    a. In early use: faint-hearted, timorous, cowardly, unmanly. Later also: effeminate. a1393—1703

    b. Slothful, lazy, sluggish. a1398—1604

    c. Not able to endure much; tender, delicate, fragile. c1450—1813

    d. Pampered, luxurious. rare. 1621—1720

    †5. Strange, rare, extraordinary. c1395—1703

    †6.

    a. Shy, coy, (affectedly) modest; reserved. a1400—1823

    b. Shy, reluctant, or unwilling in regard of or to. Also with in or infinitive. a1560—1699

    7. That requires or involves great precision or accuracy. Now rare. a1522—1911

    8.

    a. Not obvious or readily understood; difficult to decide or settle; demanding close consideration; †intricate . a1522—1980

    b. Minute, subtle; (of differences) slight, small. 1561—1974

    c. Precise in correspondence; exact, closely judged. 1710—1981

    †9.

    a. Slender, thin, fine; insubstantial. 1567—1749

    b. Unimportant, trivial. a1594—1684

    10.

    †a. That enters minutely into details; meticulous, attentive, sharp. 1589—1864

    b. Of the eye, ear, etc.: able to distinguish or discriminate to a high degree; sensitive, acute.
    1593—1993

    c. Delicate or skilful in manipulation; dexterous. Also fig. a1631—1992

    d. Of judgement, etc.: finely discriminative. 1697—1985

    †11.

    a. Critical, doubtful; full of risk or uncertainty. 1598—1822

    b. Requiring tact, care, or discrimination in handling. a1630—1858

    12.

    a. Minutely or carefully accurate. 1600—1925

    †b. Of an instrument or apparatus: capable of showing minute differences; finely poised or adjusted. a1628—1875

    13. Of food or drink: dainty, choice; (later in weakened sense) tasty, appetizing; refreshing, restorative. 1709—1991

    14.

    a. That one derives pleasure or satisfaction from; agreeable, pleasant, satisfactory; attractive. 1747—1996

    b. Used as an intensifier with a predicative adjective or adverb in nice and ——, sometimes ironically. 1796—1998

    c. Of a person: pleasant in manner, agreeable, good-natured; attractive. 1797—1999

    d. Used ironically. 1798—1978

    e. Kind or considerate in behaviour; friendly (towards others). Freq. in to be nice (to). 1830—1993

    f. Of a (finished) action, task, etc.: well-executed; commendably performed or accomplished. Now freq. in interjections, as nice going!, nice try!, nice work!. Also used ironically. 1850—1992

    g. colloq. nice one: expressing approval or congratulations for something done well. In later use also ironically. 1973—1999

    Popularized by the song Nice One Cyril, used in a television commercial for bread in the early 1970s, and recorded in 1973 by the Tottenham Hotspur football team (associated with the former Tottenham player Cyril Knowles).

    B. adv.

    †1. Foolishly. a1450-1509—a1500

    2. Satisfactorily, thoroughly; prettily, pleasingly. Now nonstandard. ?1544—1987

  4. Claude says:

    I like the Jane Austin’s quotation. One line, and she says it all. Smart girl, that Jane!

  5. I like how words change in meaning. THat s the joy of language

  6. Bridget says:

    And this is why I try not to use “nice” but always find it slipping in…I usually use it to mean “cool” as in, “You won the lottery? Nice!”

  7. John Cowan says:

    Hey, this is nothing. Be glad I didn’t paste in send.

  8. Stan says:

    Marc: I use it that way too sometimes; it doesn’t interfere with the looser sense, I think, so long as the reader or listener is aware of the usage.

    kitchenmudge: The word certainly has a rich and fascinating history, and vague approval is meaningful enough.

    John: Thank you for abridging the entry here. It’s a remarkable timeline.

    Claude: She’s a pleasure to read, for her style and insights alike.

    Jams: I usually don’t mind it either – semantic drift is inevitable and often very interesting.

    Bridget: It’s a useful and familiar word in that sense. Maybe too much so: I suspect I overuse it!

  9. Charles Sullivan says:

    Makes me think of the word ‘lousy.’

  10. Stan says:

    Charles: There’s the rhyming intermediary lice, but that’s probably not what connects them for you.

  11. Kwokhin says:

    Can’t agree more with this sentence: vague, overused, and colloquial. Partridge, in Usage and Abusage, called it “an indication of laziness”

  12. Stan says:

    Kwokhin: To clarify: I said the modern sense of “nice” has long been criticised for being vague, overused, and colloquial. Those who don’t like the usage can simply avoid it.

  13. wisewebwoman says:

    I’m with Brigid on my useage of it. But I love what you and your commenters have made of it.
    XO
    WWW

  14. Sean Jeating says:

    Article and some the comments to it are … nice.

  15. Sean Jeating says:

    …. ahem …. and here’s the missing ‘of’ …

  16. “Nice” still has its uses. I can’t think of a better expression for crystallising one’s emotions upon discovering something disgusting but unthreatening (eg a pile of dog poo on the sitting-room carpet) than “Oh, ni-ice!”

  17. Stan says:

    WWW: Likewise: I try not to overdo it, but it is a very versatile and convenient word.

    Sean: Thank you! I’m going to infer sense 10d from the OED: “Of judgement, etc.: finely discriminative.”

    Martyn: I can think of one or two, but they’re less fit for polite society.

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