The Samuel Johnson notes: A very nice word

Everyone who uses language has their crutch words. These personal clichés fill a gap in common contexts, giving us a break from the burden of originality. Many are adjectives: academics have noteworthy, campus kids have awesome, and I have nice.

Almost anything positive could invite it: nice tune, nice scarf, nice work, nice idea. I also use nice in its narrower sense meaning subtle, fine-grained: a nice distinction. Both senses are familiar to modern ears. Go back a few centuries, though, and the word becomes a chameleonic stranger.

Since its entry into English from Old French around 1300, nice has drifted frequently and radically. From its Latin etymon nescius (foolish, simple, ignorant), the word’s snowballing senses in English have included wanton, elegant, lazy, delicate, strange, cowardly, trivial, shy, skilful, and intricate: it is so protean and unstable that the OED editors find its meaning difficult to pin down in many 16th- and 17th-century examples.

Most of these usages then faded and the word settled down for a while. When Samuel Johnson wrote his great Dictionary of the English Language (1755) he included nine senses of nice, beginning with ‘accurate in judgment to minute exactness’, adding ‘fastidious, squeamish’, ‘easily injured, delicate’, ‘refined’, and others, and circling back to ‘formed with minute exactness’ and ‘requiring scrupulous exactness’.

Exactness was the semantic nucleus of nice in Johnson’s day – a meaning in keeping with the lexicographical craft but rather at odds with the word’s nature. Around the same time, the modern meaning emerged: ‘agreeable, pleasant, satisfactory; attractive’, per the OED. Its first two citations are from David Garrick (1747) and Elizabeth Carter (1769) – both of whom Johnson knew personally. But their novel use of nice does not appear in his Dictionary.

Complaints about the new usage were inevitable and lasted into modern times. Eric Partridge found it lazy (a trait Johnson ascribed glumly to himself), while H.W. Fowler blamed two things for ‘spoiling’ the word: its own good fortune, and women. ‘It has been too great a favourite with the ladies,’ he wrote, ‘who have charmed out of it all its individuality & converted it into a mere diffuser of vague & mild agreeableness.’ Which of course is what makes it so useful.

Fowler would have sided with the pedantic Henry Tilney in Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey (1817), who teases Catherine Morland for her voguish use of nice. On a walk Catherine describes Ann Radcliffe’s Mysteries of Udolpho as ‘the nicest book in the world’, which Henry wilfully misinterprets as ‘neatest’ and says, sarcastically, that it depends on the binding. His sister, Eleanor, scolds his fault-finding and warns Catherine they may be ‘overpowered with Johnson and Blair all the rest of the way’. Hugh Blair was a Scottish rhetorician; Johnson we have met.

‘It is a very nice word indeed!’ says Henry, with heavy irony. He objects that nice used to be applied ‘only to express neatness, propriety, delicacy, or refinement’ but that ‘now every commendation on every subject’ deploys it. Eleanor puts him in his place again: ‘It ought only to be applied to you, without any commendation at all. You are more nice than wise.’ She invites Catherine to praise Udolpho ‘in whatever terms we like best’.

Catherine and Eleanor were on the right side of history. Dr Johnson himself acknowledged, in the preface to his Dictionary, that linguistic change is ‘as much superiour to human resistance, as the revolutions of the sky’. Words follow common usage, going where we take them.


A few months ago I introduced The Time Traveller, a new independent Irish magazine about rare books, art, philosophy, history, education, science, literature, and such things. It is published in county Cork by a rare-book store called The Time Traveller’s Bookshop.

I copyedit and proofread the magazine, and I also write a column for it called ‘Our Living Language’, in which Samuel Johnson makes repeat appearances. The text above, titled ‘A Very Nice Word’, was first published in The Time Traveller issue #1.

You can subscribe here and read the first issue for free.

Update: Sadly, The Time Traveller magazine is no longer in operation.

12 Responses to The Samuel Johnson notes: A very nice word

  1. Sean J. says:

    Sehr nett, Stan.

  2. astraya says:

    A similar word is ‘silly’. One Sunday the assistant priest mentioned this in his sermon. Over coffee afterwards, another parishioner said ‘Oh, I really loved your sermon today’. I said ‘I thought it was silly!’.

    • Stan Carey says:

      Yes, it has changed radically over the centuries. Worth a post in its own right, though I can’t think of any exchanges (literary or otherwise) exemplifying its shift, apart from your nice example there.

  3. Scott Huler says:

    what a delightful post. many thanks; i’ll be back.

  4. Gahan Willis says:

    I seem to recall hearing on a radio program here in the states that “nice” was used in Elizabethan times to refer to a sexually promiscuous woman. Have you come across any examples of this?

    Your description of the etymology of the word made me think of Spanish, where the Latin “nescius” lives on in the form of “necio,” meaning foolish or silly. However, the English “nice” has been borrowed directly into the language (at least in Mexico) in the limited sense of fancy or posh (e.g. “un restaurante nice,” “una tienda nice”). I never knew the two words were distant cousins!

    • Stan Carey says:

      The OED lists nice, sense A2a, meaning ‘of conduct, behaviour, etc.: characterized by or encouraging wantonness or lasciviousness’; and A2b, ‘of a person: wanton, dissolute, lascivious’, e.g. Shakespeare, Love’s Labour’s Lost, iii. i. 21: ‘These are complementes, these are humours, these betraie nice wenches that would be betraied without these.’ Both usages span the late 14thC to the 17thC.

      The word also meant more or less the opposite: ‘respectable, virtuous, decent’. More recently, Green’s Dictionary of Slang has an entry for nice girl (n.) (US campus) ‘used ironically by men, a sexually permissive woman’, dating to 1969.

      Interesting note on the Spanish!

  5. […] for rare-books magazine The Time Traveller. My first article looked at the semantically spectacular history of nice. The second is on the etymology of curmudgeon and an infamous lexicographic […]

  6. […] When Chaucer used nice it meant ignorant or unaware; later it meant fastidious or precise, among other things – the OED has 14 separate entries for the word, differentiated by meaning and historical usage. […]

  7. […] onomatopoeia (cuckoo), proper nouns (algorithm), folk etymology (shamefaced), or semantic shift (nice, starve). […]

  8. […] Historically, nice has a chameleonic character. But Duncan’s description of it as ‘odd’ is specific to the context: it’s not a word he […]

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