Nice (changing meaning)

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The meaning of nice has changed greatly over the years, and academics are often conscious of change - and dislike it, on account of accuracy of meaning. (See also nice, for advice on academic usage.) It comes from a Latin word (nescius) meaning 'ignorant', and in early times meant "foolish, silly, simple; ignorant". (Sometimes it went further than this pejorative sense – it had the sense of the modern British slang 'tarty', or '[appropriate to] a woman of promiscuous sexual behaviour'.) Its second main meaning was that of 'precise' or 'fastidious'. Scientists will still occasionally say that they have made "a very nice measurement". This is not an idle boast, meaning "I have done something very agreeable". It means they have carried out a very careful and precise measurement. In older literature, you may see people described as "nice eaters", which means they are dainty, or even fussy, about their food.

There are several huge changes, like these, and many more subtle ones, in the history of nice. OED has this to say: "The semantic development of this word from 'foolish, silly' to 'pleasing' is unparalleled in Latin or in the Romance languages. The precise sense development in English is unclear." That in itself should be enough to stop any student wanting to write nice in a good piece of writing.

If you want to show off your old-fashioned and careful academic English, you may risk using the word nice in the sense of 'precise' (or, as they used to say, in the 'nice' sense). Otherwise avoid it in formal writing. (See Nice.)

It is said, probably apocryphally, that one old-fashioned academic remarked on first hearing of the first landing on the moon (1969): "I say, that's awfully nice", by which he meant that the engineering and navigation were so accurate that they filled him with a sense of awe. The fact that these words communicated only a general sense of approval to people less careful with language than himself was the point of this joke.

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