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.