John Larrysson Column: Nice


“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 (1803) Northanger Abbey


This common word has many tricky meanings. Generally today the meaning of the word nice is to describe something as good, kind or polite. It describes something in a vague way as being mildly agreeable.


That is a nice dress you are wearing.


She was very nice about refusing his offer.

Nice girls don’t use that word.


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Some English teachers disagree with this use of the word nice. They claim that the older supposedly-correct meaning is to have strict requirements or high standards. The same meaning could also be hard to please or to have fussy tastes.


His standards are too nice to eat in a dai pai dong.


That is a very nice set of school rules.


However, according to data from the British National Corpus and the Corpus of Contemporary American English, this second older meaning is now used very rarely. I recommend that the second meaning should be avoided. A “nice set of school rules” might be mistaken as being kind and helpful rather than strict.

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The original meaning of the word nice was taken from the Latin word nescius meaning silly or ignorant. (The city Nice in south-eastern France is unrelated; it was named after Nike, the Greek goddess of victory.) The word nice may even be moving full circle, back to the original meaning. People often use the word nice sarcastically:


That is a nice dress you are wearing.


Sarcastically this sentence may mean:


You look very silly wearing that!


There are many older English meanings for the word nice. Generally these meanings are not often used anymore.


to have no self control, especially for sex or alcohol


to have self control, especially for sex or alcohol (Used today as meaning good)

to avoid being too friendly

to be upper class, from an old famous family

to be very quiet and not expressing opinions

to insist on strict requirements or high standards

to be overly interested in very unimportant, trivial things

to be very precise or accurate

to be subtle (a nice point of law)


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A quick look over these older obsolete meanings shows us that they sometimes contradict each other. When reading older English books it is difficult to decide what meaning the writer was using. The sarcastic use of the word nice appears to have been common. We can’t be sure how the word was originally used in English, but here is a speculation:


Long ago someone told another that they were nescius. Then, as a joke, they lied and said that the word meant that they had high standards. The word nice then went through English history with a double meaning. Remember those people who claim that the correct meaning is to have strict requirements or high standards, well the joke is on them!


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by John Larrysson

[email protected]

A native English speaker who has been teaching practical English in Hong Kong for more than a decade.