Tuesday, July 4, 2017

A Not So "Nice" Post

I heard someone mention on the radio that the word "nice" originally had some negative meanings.

That caught my attention.

"Nice" is one of those words that bug me. It's one of those words that have become so vague in meaning I chastise my students when they use it in essays. I tell them to find a stronger, more descriptive adjective. For example, I tell them to change "She was nice" to something like "She was compassionate" or "She was humble."  Something that really describes the person or thing.

Meanwhile, there is the whole cult of "nice" in our culture. We seem to think it more important to be nice - i.e. accepting of anything, going along with whatever is popular or easy - than to be good or to stand up for what is right or moral. 

I decided to look up the word.

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary:

late 13c., "foolish, stupid, senseless," from Old French nice (12c.) "careless, clumsy; weak; poor, needy; simple, stupid, silly, foolish," from Latin nescius "ignorant, unaware," literally "not-knowing," from ne- "not" (from PIE root *ne- "not") + stem of scire "to know" (see science). "The sense development has been extraordinary, even for an adj." [Weekley] -- from "timid" (pre-1300); to "fussy, fastidious" (late 14c.); to "dainty, delicate" (c. 1400); to "precise, careful" (1500s, preserved in such terms as a nice distinction and nice and early); to "agreeable, delightful" (1769); to "kind, thoughtful" (1830).

In many examples from the 16th and 17th centuries it is difficult to say in what particular sense the writer intended it to be taken. [OED]

So, "nice" originally meant foolish, stupid and senseless? Given how it is sometimes used today, that makes sense. In accepting whatever is wrong for the sake of being "nice," we are indeed being foolish and stupid and senseless. All too often the morality of being "nice" is really often a way to avoid standing up for morality.

The entry goes on:   

By 1926, it was pronounced "too great a favorite with the ladies, who have charmed out of it all its individuality and converted it into a mere diffuser of vague and mild agreeableness." [Fowler]

"I am sure," cried Catherine, "I did not mean to say anything wrong; but it is a nice book, and why should I not 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." [Jane Austen, "Northanger Abbey," 1803]

Ha! Jane Austen was right on target. This is the way my students use "nice." Too broad, too general, ultimately, too meaningless.
We need to sometimes to be disagreeable, to speak out, to challenge, NOT to be just nice.
Then maybe we can really change things in the world that really need to be changed or curtailed in some way.

Wouldn't that be nice?
Pax et bonum

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