Why You Use The Word 'Nice' When You Don't Know What Else To Say

Because it turns out "nice" has a stranger history than you'd think.

How often do you use the word “nice”?

I have no idea how many times I physically utter the word “nice” in a single day, but I’d guess it’s a lot. I do know that if I search Slack ― the messaging app millennial office drones use to talk about work things and decidedly not-work things ― for recent instances of the word “nice” in my channels, I get 2,034 results.

My colleagues and I have used the word “nice” to describe or comment on the following: an idyllic island off the coast of Korea, a picture of a huge asteroid hitting Earth, Cher’s Twitter account, someone’s decision to grab coffee, Lady Gaga singing “Born This Way” to children in foster care, and a carefully placed photo of Donald Trump snarling.

Nice, nice, nice, nice, nice and nice. 

So: How can one word serve as the appropriate response to both impending doom and caffeine breaks?

According to lexicon history, “nice” has led an erratic existence. Over the years, “nice” has meant everything from “lewd” to “coy” to “kind.” Oxford Dictionaries cruises through the meandering history of the word on its blog.

The word “nice,” Oxford claims, has pretty negative roots in the Latin “nescius,” meaning “ignorant.” But it really took off in the 14th century as a term for something foolish or silly. The negative connotations ballooned from there. “Nice” was used to refer to a variety of less-than-great sentiments including wantonness, extravagance, ostentation, lasciviousness, cowardice and sloth. Like, “Teobaldus, your fear of the Black Plague is nice.”

Dive deeper into the Middle Ages, and the meaning deflated. The word started to hint not at ostentation or cowardice but shyness and reserve; not in a negative way, but certainly not yet positively. Let’s call it neutral. Like, “Baignard’s goat is nice.”

Folks in the 17th and 18th centuries, though, they loved modesty. (Just consider the clothes.) And as a result, “nice” began to take on a more positive tone. As Oxford points out, “nice” started to connote respectability and virtue, refined taste and polite mannerisms. Like, “Cornelia’s lofty neckline and bulbous skirt are nice.” 

Merriam-Webster, another fine purveyor of diction, provides a few examples of past (and considerably different) usages on its blog:

May we not this day read our sin in our punishment? O what nice and wanton appetites, what curious and itching ears, had thy people in the dayes of plenty? ― John Flavel, Husbandry Spiritualized, 1674

“But Reddy Wheeler knew Daisy. We were properly introduced. It was quite all right!” “Yes, but nice girls don’t do this sort of thing, you know―unchaperoned, and so late at night, and all that.” ― Fred Jackson, “Young Blood,” Munsey’s Magazine, 1917

Okay, let’s let weigh in, too. On its blog, a writer points out that by the 19th century, use of the word “nice” was not only loaded with a history of confusing meanings, it was also so ubiquitously tossed about Jane Austen had to pen a quippy bit of dialogue about it. In 1817’s Northanger Abbey, character Henry Tilney gently chastises Catherine Morland for her overuse of the word:

“And this is a very nice day; and we are taking a very nice walk; and you are two very nice young ladies,” he jests. “Oh, it is a very nice word, indeed! It does for everything.” 

Fast forward to today, and “nice” is still everywhere. It is the tardigrade of words. Nice guys. Nice moves. Nice memes. Nice weather. Sure, “nice” tends to mean kind, pleasing, polite and friendly, but it can also still mean something along the lines of “socially acceptable” or even “harmless.” Toss a “too” in front of it, and “nice” resembles its earlier definitions: ostentatious or extravagant. Pop an “I guess” after it, and “nice” sounds like a full-fledged neg (a complimentary word that actually serves as an insult). Elongate the “i” in it, and “niiice” becomes a knee-jerk response of an adverb like OK.

Basically, the meaninglessness of “nice” is just as confusing as ever. We seem to use the word whenever we don’t know what else to say. Because, well, it works.

Linguistic prescriptivists or persnickety elementary school teachers would disagree. They’d attribute the word’s multitude of definitions to lazy deployment. Why say someone or something is nice when you can be more specific? A man isn’t just nice, he’s polite in social settings. The water at the beach isn’t just nice, it’s crystal clear and temperate. A burning rock headed straight for our planet isn’t nice at all, it’s a harbinger of inevitable death. 

But descriptivists would recognize the utility of having such a nimble and ambiguous word, if, for nothing else, save the fact that it provides room for great jokes. Why is it funny to respond to apocalyptic scenarios with the chill AF response “nice”? The same reason it’s funny to react to any instance of the number “69” with a cool and concise “nice.” 

”What makes us laugh?” researchers asked in a very real article in the Journal of Neuroscience. “One crucial component of many jokes is the disambiguation of words with multiple meanings.”

In the case of “69” jokes ― and you’d be dead lying if you said they weren’t amusing ― the disambiguation is simple. “You have to say ‘nice,’” Brian Feldman wrote for Select/All. “That is shorthand for ‘You and I? We both know about sex. Congratulations to us on our base-level sexual knowledge.’” 

“Sixty-nine” jokes work particularly well on the internet, a platform that allows us to communicate in short spurts of text, to reply to a scenario with a gif, with an emoji, or with the tried-and-true utterance: “nice.” So the next time you move to type the blessed, historic word in Slack, do so with pride. Don’t let “nice” naysayers convince you the overused word is meaningless. Because “nice,” my friends, is nice.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article claimed Jane Eyre wrote Northanger Abbey, but that is preposterous. The typo has since been corrected. The author of this post feels 14th-century nice right now.



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