Nice is Not Nice

Let me rant.

To start off, the English language is absolutely fascinating. The Chinese alphabet may be more beautiful, the Esperanto syntax may be more logical, but no other language can claim to be more idiosyncratic. It gives us words like halitosis, which is a fancy way of saying he’s got bad breath. Or you can drop the bombshell and say his breath gives you a bad case of necrosis (fancy way of saying it kills you, bit by bit). Then it gives us a word called “nice”.

Ever heard the statement “He’s a nice guy” before? I have. Countless times. If I was paid 5 cents every time I get that reply whenever I asked someone to describe a person, I would be a filthy millionaire now. The thing is, the word “nice” is over-used so much so that telling me someone is nice is like saying that man has a nose, no offense to all the nose-less people out there.

Nice,  according to etymology.com, originated from the Latin word nescius, “ignorant”, lit. “not-knowing”, from ne- “not” + stem of scire “to know”, circa 1290. It underwent an incredible metamorphosis over the years, from “timid” (pre-1300); to “fussy, fastidious” (c.1380); to “dainty, delicate” (c.1405); to “precise, careful” (1500s, preserved in such terms as a nice distinction and nice and early). By the 17th century, no one could really tell what a writer meant when the word nice was used.  By 1926, this bit of foolishness attained its present form. As noted in Fowler, famous for his  Dictionary of modern English Usage,

“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.” (1926)

In the politically correct environment of the 21st century, being careful with descriptive terms has reached a startling new high. Or low, depending on your perspective. Afraid of stepping on verbal landmines, many instead created verbose clutter that mean nothing.

Take the following example.

“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”]

This is not a new thing. Many people have decried political correctness and its attempts at white washing many unpleasant and unpalatable things through various tongue twisting contrivances. Calling a person vertically challenged doesn’t make him any taller. Calling a toilet cleaner a sanitation executive doesn’t detract from the fact that he *shock* cleans toilets.

In short, say what you mean. More importantly, if someone asks for a description, describe it, warts and all.

Further reading:

Seth’s Blog:
http://sethgodin.typepad.com/seths_blog/2006/06/how_to_get_traf.html

Fowler’s Modern English:
Fowler, Henry; Winchester, Simon (introduction) (2003 reprint). A Dictionary of Modern English Usage (Oxford Language Classics Series). Oxford Press. ISBN 0-19-860506-4.

Northanger Abby, Jane Austen (Read it for FREE!)
http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/121

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