Nice Story

Every writer knows that choosing the right word is critical. A word that is too odd or inappropriate can jar a reader out of the story, while non-descriptive words can be boring.

One of the most common words by far in English is ‘nice.’

It is common in both senses — ‘widely used’ and ‘ordinary.’ Everybody uses it a lot, but it doesn’t say a lot.

Pleasant? Agreeable? Kind?

An older meaning, which you may sometimes still hear, is ‘exact, precise, or subtle,’ as in: ‘a nice distinction,’ one so subtle that it wouldn’t be very noticeable.

But as it is commonly used today, nice has no ‘nice’ meaning. It means whatever you think it means, or nothing at all, and is used whenever the speaker or writer is too lazy to think of a more descriptive term.

An even older meaning, not seen these days, is ‘fussy or fastidious.’ It is this meaning that Shakespeare intends when he has Friar Lawrence lament, “The letter was not nice, but full of charge.” In other words, it wasn’t just a “Hi, how are you doing?” letter; it was a “Juliet’s not really dead, so don’t kill yourself” kind of letter. Not nice.

Going back further, we find the meaning ‘foolish or ignorant.’ Now we are coming close to the root of the word.

For nice actually is descended from nescius, which in Latin means ‘ignorant.’

To be more precise: a ‘nice’ person is a ‘fool.’

And next time you use the word, will you be precise? Or will you have no idea what you really mean?

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2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. April French
    Jan 05, 2010 @ 13:23:39

    Actually, I think the next time I use the word “nice,” it will be to describe a boda fide fool.

    Thank you for taking a fairly non-descriptive descriptor and making it ambiguous. That made my day. 😀

    Reply

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