Is Nice The Meanest Word In The English Language?

(Or: Captain Obvious Rang, He Wants His Insights Back)

Nice guys finish last, so they say (although who ‘they’ might be remains to be seen).

In Austen there are basically 3 types of male love interest: the PHWOAR-gasm – charming, sexy probably-a-soldier (bad guy); the guy she misjudged but she didn’t realise it at first cos’ he seemed like a total dick but actually on second glance is totally a good guy with a rockin’ bod; AND…

The obviously-a-good-guy, but he’s just too nice so that ain’t gonna’ happen but if he’s lucky he might get amongst a supporting character. Alan Rickman played him in Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility. See also: Mr Bingley – good enough for Jane maybe, but then again Jane’s equally insipid so doesn’t really count.

And before we start to sound like one of those vaguely misogynistic blogs by and for men who can’t get girls to fancy them and blame it on their inherent ‘niceness’ as opposed to their inherent personal failings, men are exactly the same, for exactly the same reason:

Here’s a list of things that are nice: BeeGees ballads, vanilla ice cream, pastels.

It’s not exhaustive, obviously, but to be fair it’s also not representative. Because we’re trying to demonstrate a point here. And that point is that ‘nice’ is the compliment people give when they can’t think of anything meaningful to say.

Nice is bland – it’s fine but nothing to get excited about or put any thought into, so far so, well, nice, right? But that’s not why it’s possibly the meanest word (alright, adjective) in the language.

This is: as it happens, nice hasn’t always meant, well… nice. Its archaic meaning around about the 13th century was ‘foolish, stupid or senseless’; your average Kate Hudson movie in other words.

Over time nice came to mean timid or uncertain, before developing to mean fussy or fastidious, then ‘dainty’ or ‘delicate’ (as in ‘of a fragile disposition’) and so on until the 16th century or so, when it primarily meant ‘scrupulously exact’. Which is a quality one expects in one’s accountant, prenuptial agreements and the taxman. Again, not exhaustive/representative, but you take my point.

The latter usage has been preserved in phrases such as ‘nice and early’ (ie punctual), incidentally.

So more or less until it achieved its current meaning of ‘pleasantly beige’, the word nice has signified a series of characteristics that most people would view as faintly insulting, like having your looks favourably compared to Predator.

And when you use the word to describe something, your implying of that narrative of meaning means that you’re being far meaner than you might have meant.


10 thoughts on “Is Nice The Meanest Word In The English Language?

    1. Thanks, I saw the prompt and I figured I already knew that nice used to mean precise but thought I’d check and discovered the darn thing changes meaning more often than David Beckham changes hairstyles so I figured why not and wrote it up then explained it to you in a really long sentence… I do quite like finding out where some words have come from and how they change meaning over time.

  1. This is really straining my memory, but I do believe there was an episode of Dawson’s Creek that covered this topic. Pacey asked Joey about their relationship and she told him how nice she thought it was. Naturally, he flips out because nice doesn’t really mean nice and it also diminishes his masculinity. Joey, of course, meant it as a compliment. I don’t know where I’m going with this…

    If you notice in Austen novels, type one usually end up marrying someone like Lydia or Maria, which is probably the ultimate punishment in an Austen novel. So nice guys don’t finish last, they’re usually a (respectful) second place.

    1. Some nice guys probably manage to finish first; to be honest I’m not convinced that that particular saying really stands up to much scrutiny.

      I used to love Dawson’s Creek.

      1. I think they do, but probably more so after age 20. Besides I’m convinced Darcy/Wentworth/Tilney type doesn’t really exist, which, by default, means nice guys win.

        I think it’s the episode at the ski lodge. I know way too much about that show.

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