In the United Kingdom, the "nice decade" is over. When Bank of England governor Mervyn King announced recently that "the nice decade is behind us," he didn't mean that British pleasantness was at an end. Rather, he was using an acronym, NICE, which stands for "Non-Inflationary Consistent Expansion," a condition that King says has characterized the last ten years of British economic prosperity. One economist says the country is now heading into VILE years, playing off NICE with his own readymade acronym for "Volatile Inflation, Less Expansionary," while another says things are going to be EVIL ("Exacting period of Volatile Inflation and Low growth").

BBC News greets the end of the NICE decade with the question, "What's the point of niceness?" Was the acronym an appropriate one to label Britain's sustained economic boom, or is nice just too... nice?

Nice has seen a lot of changes over the last seven centuries. As Oxford English Dictionary etymologist Philip Durkin told the BBC, the word has "one of the most complicated semantic histories in English." When it first began appearing in English texts around 1300 (arriving from a French word with its roots in the Latin word nescius "ignorant"), it meant "foolish" or "absurd." Soon it began mutating through a number of different senses: from "wanton, dissolute" to "showy, ostentatious" to "finely dressed, elegant" to "precise, fastidious." This early association with refinement and precision survives in some modern meanings of nice, as illustrated by senses in the VT wordmap such as "done with delicacy and skill" and "exhibiting courtesy and politeness." And we still speak of subtle points of propriety as niceties.

By the late eighteenth century, the "refined" sense of nice had become extended to a more general term of approval: "pleasant, agreeable." In Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey (1817) the character Henry Tilney mocks the way everything good had suddenly become nice:

"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. Originally perhaps it was applied only to express neatness, propriety, delicacy, or refinement; — people were nice in their dress, in their sentiments, or their choice. But now every commendation on every subject is comprised in that one word."

Henry Watson Fowler didn't think much of this extension of nice either, and in his Dictionary of Modern English Usage (1926) he blamed "the ladies":

"Nice has been spoilt, like clever, by its bonnes fortunes; it has been too great a favorite with the ladies, who have charmed out of it all its individuality and converted it into a mere diffuse of vague and mild agreeableness. Everyone who uses it in its more proper senses, which fill most of the space given to it in any dictionary, and avoids the modern one that tends to oust them all, does a real if small service to the language."

The BBC News article quotes some contemporary voices who also disapprove of the word's overuse. "When you describe something as nice," philosopher Mark Vernon says, "it suggests that you can't think of anything good or bad. It's lukewarm, neither hot nor cold. To say something is terrible is better: at least it shows you have invested thought or energy."

Personally, I think nice has gotten a bit of a bad rap over the years. When used in moderation, it's perfectly nice. So, Visual Thesaurus readers, have a nice day, unless you'd rather have an enjoyable, pleasurable, or gratifying one.


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Ben Zimmer is executive producer of the Visual Thesaurus and Vocabulary.com. He is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society. Click here to read more articles by Ben Zimmer.

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Comments from our users:

Wednesday May 28th 2008, 8:45 AM
Comment by: Louis E.
Nice article! Seriously. I like "nice" because it is such a solid word. It even sounds nice! Thanks Ben.
Thursday May 29th 2008, 11:32 AM
Comment by: Mr. Natural (Sabaneta/Medellin Colombia)
For several years 'NICE' was my standard response to anyone who asked me, 'How are you?'. Sometimes their was a quizzical look as if they were unsure if I was serious.
I greet my artist musician friends this way. They say, 'Hey, how are you?' I say, 'Nice, I feel nice man, how about you? ´

Nice man!
PJW
Sunday June 1st 2008, 10:40 AM
Comment by: Liliane Y.
"nice" all by itself seems pretentious -
accompanied with " I feel nice, how about you?' is a bit better.

Nice is a quality of character not of physical well-being;
"good" "well" - - - are better I think for expressing how we feel.
Friday November 21st 2008, 7:17 AM
Comment by: maryjoy S. (dublin Ireland)
Hi everyone

I am new to the world of words.
I am dyslexic so for 50 years I dived and ducked until the world of technology cough up with me. No body wanted to talk email me they asked.

So here I am doing a course for adult dyslexic.

I was delighted when I was shown Visual Thesaurus.
I find it so helpful as I am very visual, and I can move around and explore words.
My spelling is improving and I am starting to relax and have fun.

Maryjoy
Thursday August 13th 2009, 11:18 AM
Comment by: Donna R. (Johnstown, NY)
The word nice to me sounds as if you cannot find anything really
worthwhile to say about either the person or thing your referring to
(for instance, the kiss of death for a man!_- "he seems like a nice
guy"). No excitement there, no real feeling-so it's nice.
Friday August 14th 2009, 10:27 AM
Comment by: Ellis D. (London United Kingdom)
'Nice' is very useful. It avoids committing yourself about both character and appearance but it can also irritate if you want to force people into giving their opinion.
Monday July 12th 2010, 2:47 PM
Comment by: Mr. Natural (Sabaneta/Medellin Colombia)
Niceness was a value once, so was being an alcoholic and proving myself
to be cute or smart. I was once committed to such a thought pattern and I was also committed to a psychiatric hospital as insane. English can be rather imprecise. Or not.
Tuesday July 13th 2010, 5:31 AM
Comment by: Ellis D. (London United Kingdom)
There is another important British acronym:
NICE for National Institute of Health and Clinical Excellence.

This powerful body was set up to guarantee that NHS funding went towards treatment that was justified. This got turned into "value for money" such as "is it worth paying £100,000 for an extra 6 months of life?"

In turn this has let to the acronym NICE becoming sarcastic which rejoins the word 'nice' in sounding slightly condescending.

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