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 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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